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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Writing Memories 7

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Module 2.3: Accidents

We are talking about accidents, but this segment offers a transition between accidents and illness. To a certain extent, accident prevention or at least the check-ups that lead to illness prevention is key here. Blood tests rate high on that scale and I am tested regularly, at least once every six months, sometimes more often, for the different levels of chemicals in my body that may signify that all is good or that something may ultimately go wrong. Blood testing has become quicker and easier. I used to hate the sight of the needle, but now I concentrate on the nurses who work with me, some especially those nearing my own age, very sympathetic, others, younger, setting out on their nursing careers, so young, delicate, and full of enthusiasm. Sometimes I feel attracted to these young creatures in a sort of May to December match up of care-giver (her) and care-needer (me). I find this both curious and funny: si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait  / if youth knew how, if old age was able to … I have learned to laugh with delight at the incongruity of these silly moments and I am amazed how much humor can help, even in the most serious moments. First, the poem.

Love at Last Light 

A teenage apprentice with a little plastic badge
bearing her name asked me to reveal my birthdate.
This apparently confirmed that I knew who I was,
so she bound my arm with a thick rubber thong.

My veins swelled up, long thin leeches, slowly fattening.
She told me to make a fist and pouted as she probed
with slender fingers, feeling in vain for a fresh vein
from which to extract, then bottle the necessary blood.

I watched my body’s sap pumping out in tiny, sad spurts
driven by that tired flesh-and-blood machine known as
my heart. Drip by febrile drip my blood accumulated.
The young girl smiled with youth’s perfect lips and teeth.

My heart was a time-bomb ticking beneath her fingers.
I dreamed for an instant of walking upright and free,
a stranger in the paradise of a long-promised land.

Then she handed me my gifts: a throw-away plastic potty,
three disposable spatulas, and an air-dry sample card,
with written instructions, date stamped, bearing my name.

Commentary: I like this. It might benefit from more dialog, an insertion of personalities, an exchange of wit, dry science on the one side, an old man’s take on life on the other. I’ll think about that. Meanwhile, we have all been to a local hospital or clinic for blood tests of various types and we are all familiar with the situation. I don’t know how other people feel, but here’s my prose take on the situation.

Love at Last Light [Prose 1]

A teenage apprentice with a little plastic badge bearing her name asked me to reveal my birth date. This apparently confirmed that I still knew who I was, so she bound my arm with a thick rubber thong. My veins swelled up, long thin leeches, slowly fattening. She told me to make a fist and pouted as she probed with slender fingers, feeling in vain for a fresh vein from which to extract, then bottle the necessary blood. I watched my body’s sap pumping out in tiny, sad spurts driven by that tired flesh-and-blood machine known as my heart. Drip by febrile drip my blood accumulated. The young girl smiled with youth’s perfect lips and teeth.
My heart was a time-bomb ticking beneath her fingers. I dreamed for an instant of walking upright and free, a stranger in the paradise of a long-promised land. Then she handed me my gifts: a throw-away plastic potty, three disposable spatulas, and an air-dry sample card, with written instructions, date stamped, bearing my name.

Commentary: This stands up. It is short, to the point, and makes a point at the end. Or does it? Maybe I need to expand the ending, insert some direct dialog, I need to think about this. No problem: there’s lots of time. I’ll go out for a little walk and see if the muse descends while I am walking. The muse arrived and whispered in my ear, and I expanded the piece from 170 to 415 words, virtually doubling the word count. Was it worth the effort? You must be the judge.

Love at Last Light [Prose 2]

A teenage apprentice with a little plastic badge bearing her name asked me to reveal my birth date. I gave it, and this apparently confirmed that I still knew who I was. She offered me a quick twist and pucker of the lips and I interpreted this as a smile. My left arm, sleeve rolled up, lay flat against the little work area beside the chair. “This arm?” she asked and I nodded. She bound my arm with a thick rubber thong. My veins swelled up, long thin leeches, slowly fattening. She told me to make a fist and pouted as she probed with slender fingers, feeling in vain for a fresh vein from which to extract, then bottle the necessary blood. Then, she took a new needle, checked it, concentrated on her chosen spot, and slipped the needle into the web of veins just inside my left elbow. I felt the needle tip slice through the flesh, but I felt no pain. With the needle in, she attached the shunt to the needle end, and I watched my body’s sap pumping out in tiny, sad spurts driven by that tired flesh-and-blood machine known as my heart. Drip by febrile drip my blood accumulated in the container. When the first container filled, she attached another, and another. “Wow,” I said, remembering the immortal words of the comedian, Tony Hancock, “that’s a whole armful.” The young girl smiled with youth’s perfect lips and teeth and my heart fluttered. My heart did more than flutter: it became a time-bomb ticking beneath her fingers. I remembered how easily I bruised and tried not to think about the red, purple, and blue sunsets that sometimes spread across my inner arm after these exercises. I dreamed instead of walking upright and free on the golden sands of a Caribbean beach, hand in hand with this stranger as the sun slipped into the sea for its final bathe of the day. A stranger to my present self, I felt young again as we walked together in the paradise of a distant but well-remembered land. “I’ve got a present for you,” said my new found companion as she handed me my gifts: a throw-away plastic potty, three disposable spatulas, and an air-dry sample card, with written instructions, date stamped, bearing my name. “You know where to put the samples when you have produced them?” I nodded, sighed, picked up the anonymous brown paper bag, and walked away.

Suggestions for the writing exercises 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.

Beginning Writers: Just write, using the prompts to help you get your own words and experiences and memories on the page. Use dialog where you can.
Intermediate Writers 1: Try and concentrate, while writing, on including at least one sense (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) within your piece.
Intermediate Writers 2: Try and combine two or three senses within each exercise.
Advanced Writers: Use the prompts as you will and concentrate on imagery, metaphors, letting the language doing the work, and combining or mixing the senses. You can also experiment with free-writing, interior monologue, and surrealism.

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Writing Memories 6

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Writing Memories 6

Module 2.2: Accidents

Accidents are not pleasant, nor are trips to the doctor’s surgery where the fear that something might have gone wrong and that the doctor might find out what it is and might then want to do something about it always haunts us, well, me at least. That fear is something I carry around in the back pocket of my jeans. Sometimes it hides in my backpack or my brief case. I am afraid that one day it will suddenly leap out and frighten me. That said, waiting rooms and coffee shops are among the world’s greatest places for listening and hearing what is happening, not to our selves in our own inner worlds, but to other people, real people, who also live and suffer like you and me. So here’s a series of conversations overheard in a waiting room. First, as always, the poem.

Waiting Room
words overheard while waiting

Back turned to the world, my good ear trained on two gossips
who chatter about friends, family, acquaintances,
the intimate details of childlessness, caused by
cancers and sudden sicknesses, all laid out before me,
willy-nilly, to root, grow, and fester in my fertile mind.

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

“Just one of those things,” one of them whispers, “my husband
gone and me alone with all the grand kids.” “Was it four years
ago? Or five?” the other replied, “I remember his name, but I forget his face.”

“I’ll cope somehow, and the fourteen-year old, with her belly
already swelling.” A subtle silence wraps a scarf around
their flapping mouths. Lives and worlds end and begin. Words settle.
Fine dust dances in a sun ray that spotlights floating motes.
I think of my own lost loves, buried before their proper time.

Commentary: This snapshot in time resonates with me. I never saw the faces of the speakers, they were behind me, and I only heard their voices as I waited outside the doctor’s office for my beloved. I usually take a book to read, or a notebook in which to write some of the snippets that come floating across to me. In this case, I wrote down the gist of the conversation, I would like to say verbatim, but there is more than a touch of creative in this particular non-fiction which transforms itself into fiction because it is no longer real, even though it may have started out that way. And that’s what happens: reality metamorphoses into a fictitious entity that, if it is well-written, then becomes a new reality, linked to, but not the same as the original itself. The secret of art is this process by which the real becomes fictitious then becomes real again. It’s like walking a tightrope blindfold or walking hands before your face in the dark trying not to stumble into objects. Clearly, some do it more easily than others, but all of us improve as we learn how to sharpen our creative senses of touch and balance. Here’s the prose version that I read on Sunday (March 10).

Waiting Room [Prose 1]
words overheard while waiting

Back turned to the world, my good ear trained on two grandmothers who gossip about friends, family, acquaintances, the intimate details of childlessness, caused by cancers and sudden sicknesses, all laid out before me, willy-nilly, whether I want to listen or not, to root, grow, and fester in my fertile mind. Never will I put a face to those girls with breast cancer, the overweight women with diabetes, the old men with their heart attacks, strokes, and haemorrhaged brains. “Just one of those things,” one of them whispers, “my husband gone and me alone with all the grand kids.” “Was it four years ago? Or five?” the other asks. “I remember his name, but I forget his face.” “I’ll cope somehow, and the fourteen-year old, with her belly already swelling.” A subtle silence wraps a scarf around their stricken mouths. Lives and worlds end and begin. Words settle. Fine dust dances in a sun ray that spotlights floating motes. I think of my own lost loves, my three missing brothers, buried before their proper time.

Commentary: The introduction of the intensely personal at the end changes the sense of an ending, but does not materially transform the piece. I have revisited this piece, but feel unable to transform it further. It is stuck in the sands of time and no amount of pushing and shoving will budge it. It is just there. And there I will leave it. The last thing I want to be, as a writer, is a dog who chases his tail round and round in ever-decreasing circles until, tired and dizzy, he keels over and drops off to sleep. If fresh inspiration is to come, it will. It will not magically appear just because I keep rubbing and rubbing at that old brass lamp, hoping for the genie to emerge and grant me one more wish. So, there it is and I’ll let it be.

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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Writing Memories 5

 

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A stitch in time

Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Looking back, a year later, I seem to have lost the thrill of that shock. No sensation of pain. Blood oozed, squirted sluggishly, then flowed freely between the fleshy cliffs of the wound. I went to the fridge, took out an ice-cube. Blood all over the fridge door, the floor, dripping off my fingers. I went to the sink, ran the cold water, doused my hand in well water and ice. I could feel it then, a chaotic shrill pain, running through my hand in short, sharp electric shocks. I glanced at my little finger and saw white bone.

I tore a sheet from the paper towel roll: blotting paper to red ink. It sopped up the blood and overflowed in seconds. Another sheet. I bound it round the ice cube and tried, one-handed, to tighten my hanky round the paper. Impossible: the ice cube kept slipping. I looked at the floor: more blood. I looked at the telephone: neighbor? Police? Ambulance? I grabbed the hand towel, folded it in four, and bound it tightly round my hand, clutching the loose end in my fingers. I hurried to the door. Looking back, I saw a trail of blood spots and the cat, nose down, busy licking them up. Left hand held high to try and slow the bleeding, I drove to emergency.

Triage: the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can. “You won’t want this any more,” she grimaced. She took off my amateur dressings, and the blood started flowing again. “Are you on blood thinners?” “No.” You must have cut a vein.” “This will hurt,” she said, and sprayed some ‘stuff’ on my hand. It hurt. I tried not to wince. She tied my finger up tight, put my arm in a sling with the hand held high, and sent me back to the waiting room,

An overweight white male sat there, grinning at me. “Hurt?” he asked. “Yup.” “Much?” “It’s okay.” He stood up, put his hand in his jeans’ pocket, and turned his back on me. I could see the crack of his buttocks over the top of his pants. They bowed and bagged at the knees. He hoisted them up, the crack disappeared, the pants slipped back down, and the vertical crack smiled out at me again. “Here,” he showed me a packet, half concealed in his hand. “Try these. They’ll take away the pain.” “No thank you.” “They’re good. I take them. I get them off the street.” I took notebook and pen from my pocket and started to write. The guy shrugged, put whatever it was back in his pocket, and started to whistle.

The waiting room smells were different from the those of the triage room. In with the nurses, I had sensed their body warmth, their sweat at the end of a long day and at the beginning of an even longer night. I could feel energy, happiness, though I cannot explain what they smelled like. The air seemed to throb with positivity, good will, bustle, hope, and determination.  Perhaps it was the cleanliness, the medicinal smells, the disinfectants, the cotton swabs, the fresh, clean bandages, he sense of teamwork and companionship. It smelled and felt good in spite of the occasional unwholesome odor drifting out from the plastic bag where my blood-soaked hand-towel languished along with pads and bandages bearing witness to my loss of blood.

Outside in the waiting room: a different world. A sense of boredom and hopelessness filled the air. Bodies slept slumped over in chairs. The room smelt of stale sweat, dank clothes. An old man, isolated in the corner, reeked of urine. Some sipped coffee as they waited their turn, its bitter acidic odor similar to that of morning drinks on an overnight transatlantic flight with the same sour stench of too many bodies cooped up in too small a space. Sandwich wrappers and discarded gum packets littered the floor and rustled when disturbed by shuffling feet. Distant babble of nurses and attendants. A TV high on the wall tuned to the 24-hour news on CBC muttered its words quietly from on high. One lady had brought an orange with her and, as she peeled it, its bitter-sweet perfume made my mouth water and I was forced to swallow my own saliva.

Luck was with me and I didn’t have to wait long. A nurse called my name and her arm swept me into another surgery where a young man washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel, and encouraged me to sit down. He took my hand, placed it flat on the table between us, and began stripping off the dressings. When he came to the last one, I started to bleed again. “This should have stopped,” he said. “Tell me about it,” I replied. His eyes sparkled. “I’m sorry, he said, “but this will hurt a little bit. I am going to have to freeze your finger before I sew it up.” “Do it,” I said. He opened a sterilized packet, took out a needle, shoved it into a small bottle. “You’ll feel a little twinge, but the needle carries its own anesthetic, and it won’t take long to bite.” It didn’t. I flinched at first, but by the time he pushed the needle into my finger a second time, I couldn’t feel a thing.

He peeled back the skin, began dabbing and squeezing, and quizzed me again about anticoagulants. He chatted away, happy as a budgie on a perch, and I soon warmed to him. “This might hurt,” he said, as he inserted the needle, and threaded my laceration with a thin, blue thread that he knotted, then snipped. But it didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel a thing at all. “Is your anti-tetanus up to date?” “I don’t know.” “This might be the tough one,” he said, referring to the third needle. It wasn’t.

I walked out of the hospital and drove home, elated. When I opened the door, I looked for bloodstains on the floor. Not one. The thin, pink, sand-paper rasp of the cat’s tongue had cleaned them all up. And there she sat, in the middle of the corridor, eyes glowing, licking her paw, waiting for me.

Commentary: I revisited Triage once again. My memories, a year later, are clearer, yet more distant. Have I managed to capture that experience in A Stitch in Time? I very much doubt it. So what have I captured? I just don’t know. What I do know is that the whole process of remembering, rewriting, re-configuring has been fascinating. That original setting down in words has been the starting point for four different departures, four different journeys back into the past. One of them took place last Sunday, verbally, as I was recounting the experience to those who were with me in the Saint John Free Library. Memory: what does it mean? How do we change it? How does it change us? Are our memories ‘real’, in the sense that they are accurate and permanent, or do they change as we age and color them, sometimes with a rose-tinted hue, sometimes with the deepest shades of grey and black? I cannot answer those questions. I do not have that particular skill set. But I can ask them of myself and I can set them before other writers so that they, too, may set out on similar journeys and enjoy themselves and their past as I am doing.

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Writing Memories 4

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Writing Memories 4

Module 2.1 : Accidents

Like it or not, accidents happen at our age. We trip on the rug, slip on the ice, fall in the bath, so many little things can happen, none, hopefully, serious, but every one of them annoying. In my case, my beloved traveled to Ottawa to visit our family then and I stayed to look after the cat (and have my favorite chair vomited on by the monster). I played contact sports for years, no stitches. My beloved goes away and two or three days later, I slice myself up sharpening a kitchen knife. Everything is fodder for creation. Here’s the poem.

Triage
A stitch in time

1

Banality, stupidity, or just old age:
how did the knife slip from its intended path
and end up slicing through my finger? Blood

everywhere, oozing then pumping, flowing
freely, deep ugly, red, between fleshy
cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain,

short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing
out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning
my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand,

right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first
aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press
down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet

ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom
towel, run down corridor to garage,
leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following,

sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor,
one hand clumsy on steering wheel, the other
held high as I drive to emergency, fast.

2

Three nurses attend me. The first completes
the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages
my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait.

Second nurse inserts needles, kills the nerve,
cleans the wound, sews my little finger up.

Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time
now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, checks me
for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: The poem summarizes the instant well. I think the most horrible and outlandish thing of all was looking over my shoulder and seeing the cat following me, licking up the blood trail that I left spotted across the floor. I remember her squatting there, licking her lips: little horror. So, for Sunday’s session, I turned that moment into prose.

Triage [Pose 1]
A stitch in time

1

Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Blood oozes, then squirts, then flowing freely, deep ugly, red, between fleshy cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain, short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand, right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom towel, run down corridor to garage, leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following, sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor, hand clumsy on steering wheel, horn tooting, driving to emergency, fast.

2

Three nurses attend me. So many questions. The first completes the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait. Second nurse inserts needles, kills the nerve, cleans the wound, sews my little pinky up to the sound of thread pulled through flesh, then knotted, and snipped. Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, checks me for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: Nothing wrong with that. From poetry to prose poem. But is it lacking something, some bite, the feeling of panic, a sense of shock? Alas, it is missing so much. “Every attempt / is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / because one has only learnt to get the better of words / for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / one is no longer disposed to say it.” And that is so true. What was true for me then, battered, bruised, bleeding, in shock, no longer comes through the words I left on the page. I wondered if I could warm them up a little. Here goes.

Triage [Prose 2]

A stitch in time
1
Banality, stupidity, or just old age: how did the knife slip from its intended path and end up slicing through my finger? Blood oozes, then squirts, then flows freely, ugly, red, between deep, fleshy cliffs, the wound’s edges. Chaotic, shrill pain, short, sharp shocks, cold water flowing, flushing out the sudden gulley, cleansing, thinning my life’s liquid. Little finger, left hand, right down to bright bone. Instant recall, first aid course. Sheet from paper towel, staunch, press down, pressure, find gauze, bandages, scarlet ink, my blood, not royal blue. Take bathroom towel, run down corridor to garage, leaving fresh blood spoor, the cat following, sniffing, licking my blood fresh off the floor, hand clumsy on steering wheel, horn tooting, driving to emergency, fast.
2
Three nurses attend me. So many questions. The first completes the triage, stops the bleeding, bandages my hand, gauze pads press down, sends me to wait. Second nurse inserts needle, kills the nerve, cleans the wound, sews my little pinky up to the sound of thread pulled through flesh, then knotted, and snipped. Six stitches. A tubular dressing. Time now for third nurse, anti-T-jab, asks me questions, gazes into my eyes, checks me for PTSD, smiles sadly, sends me home.

Commentary: Not much has changed yet now I seem to have lost the thrill, the shock, of that moment. I never even mentioned the feeling of achievement that warmed me when I got home, the knowledge that I had hurt myself and had got myself repaired without having to call my neighbors or emergency. I didn’t add that the first nurse tossed the blood-soaked kitchen towel into the garbage can and that she was unable to stop the bleeding. The second nurse managed that, after he injected me. He also gave me extra bandages in case the cut re-opened during the night. It didn’t. Looking back now, and remembering, I recall the hospital smells, the sense of the needle slipping into my flesh, the gradual loss of all feeling, the smell of the surgery, the scent of the anesthetic, the taste of the saliva in my  mouth. Revisiting the scene, so much later, I can begin to see all that I missed. As a result, Eliot’s words ring out truer than ever. Clearly, I will have to revisit this poem, this prose, this memory sketched into my life. This commentary, written on the spur of the moment, may help me do just that. Clearly I need to move from visual expression to visceral experience and taste and smell may just do that. Yes, I tasted my blood (so did the cat), and my saliva, and  I remember how the taste changed, oh so subtly, with each injection (there were three). I also remember the smells, all different of each of those rooms. Oh dear, so much work still to do.

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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Writing Memories 3

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Writing Memories 3

Module 1.2 Disasters:

Last Sunday, the first module was titled Triumphs and Disasters. I have separated them here. My first thought for Disasters came in the form of a poem.

Age of Spillage

Fingers turn to butter, permit cups to slip,
flying saucers to take off, to stall and crash,

their broken bodies resting in peace and pieces
on kitchen floor, waiting to be picked up and buried.

Worse: bottle tops screwed up tight refuse to open.
Plastic wrapping, flagrant in its defiance,

wages its guerrilla war against ageing,
uncoordinated arthritic fingers.

Tongue-twisters twist tongue and tones and speech,
filling mouths with glottal stops and threadbare words.

The rib cage is a cupboard barren and bare.
So many slips between palate, teeth, and lips.

So many precious things dropping to the floor.
I cannot always bend and pick them up,
not even with my new mechanical claw.

Commentary: Nothing wrong with this as a poem. It’s fun to experiment, though, and poetry takes up more space than prose. This is the prose poem, or prose passage, or flash fiction piece, take your pick.

Age of Spillage [Prose 1]

Fingers turn to butter, permit cups to slip, flying saucers to take off, to stall and crash, their broken bodies resting in peace and pieces on kitchen floor, waiting to be picked up and buried. Worse: bottle tops screwed up tight refuse to open. Plastic wrapping, flagrant in its defiance, wages its guerrilla war against ageing, uncoordinated arthritic fingers. Tongue-twisters twist tongue and tones and speech, filling mouths with glottal stops and threadbare words. The rib-cage is a cupboard barren and bare. So many slips between palate, teeth, and lips. So many precious things dropping to the floor. I cannot always pick them up, not even with my new mechanical claw.

Commentary: I liked this transcription. The changes came easily and are very few. A little expansion there and there, but not much. The challenge for me then became the desire to reach out from my private world to the world of the workshop. I felt that to do that, I needed to add some material, specifically I wanted to highlight and intensify some sensations.

Age of Spillage [Prose 2]

    Fingers turn to butter but taste of nicotine, garlic, and soap when I bite my nails. My fingers encourage cups to slip, flying saucers to take off, to run out of energy, stall and crash, their broken bodies resting in peace and pieces on kitchen floor, waiting to be picked up, one by one, and buried in the waste bin. Arthritic fingers grown clumsy now struggle with bottle tops and glass containers screwed up so tight they refuse to open, even when soaked under the hot tap. I stick those jars in door jambs, lid first, closing the door with one hand, and twisting the jar with the other. Sometimes jars slip and crash to the floor, often with a portion of the contents spilling out. I hate these onion style plastic wraps, gathering together in layer after layer of wrapping. Flagrant in their defiance, they wage a guerrilla war against these ageing, uncoordinated fingers. I am often forced to use a knife, but a knife can slip or twist so easily. Occasionally, blunt, it will not even penetrate indomitable, multi-folded Saran wrap. On the telephone, names and numbers turn into tongue-twisters that twist tongue, tone and words, filling my mouth with glottal stops and threadbare speech. At times like these, my rib-cage becomes a Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, barren and bare, empty of all feelings, save panic. I reverse my numbers, putting them the wrong way round, calling by mistake so many unknown people. So many slips between plate, teeth, and lips. Multiple precious items drop to the floor. I cannot always bend to pick them up, and I cannot easily grasp them, not even with my new mechanical flexi-claw.

Commentary: This is the version I read on Sunday. I quite liked it at the time, but I now find the telephone passages at the end to be intrusive. I may  well cut them out and concentrate on touch. I wanted the telephone ‘in’ to exemplify sound, but on second thoughts it should probably be a fresh piece on its own. I could easily incorporate sound, the crash of the jar, the splintering of breaking glass, and even smell, the rich scent of the jar’s contents, into the touch section.

“We have no time to stand and stare” but true art demands that we sit, stare, look, listen, think, re-think, write, re-write. Remember too that some results are delayed and that impatience is the worst enemy of art. Don’t transport your paintings while the pain is still wet and don’t pull your carrots up early to see if they are actually starting to grow.

Addendum: Participaction … don’t think about it, do it.

Fingers slip across the telephone key board, pressing the wrong numbers or punching them in in the wrong order. Strange voices reply from the other end. This morning a woman spoke to me in a language I didn’t understand, Then a man came on the line and yelled at me in broken English to “Go away! Go away! Leave alone!” I imagined him tearing the telephone from his wife and berating her for this call from a foreigner. Often, I am too clever for my own good. I think I recall the right number for a friend, but when  punch it in, I find I have reversed two of the figures. I hear other people doing that when they call me: “Sorry, I say. I think you have the wrong number.” “Is that 472 …?” they query. I say that it isn’t and they say sorry and end the call. Then they call me back immediately and get the same answer. I hate running through my list of callers to get to the name that I want to call. But that’s what I have to do most days now. At least I don’t run into so many wrong numbers. And as for answering the phone … well … I am tired of robot calls, especially around election time. I am fed up with telephone surveys. I am driven crazy by the little men, I assume from their voices that they are little, who call me in the middle of the night or wake me early in the morning to tell me that my computer needs repair. “Suh, suh, we have discovered a werry nasty wirus [sic, or should that be sick] on your computer. Give me your password and let me in to your computer and I will repair it instantly. ” I have had calls from the telly-phony tax men who tell me the RCMP are about to knock on my door and arrest me if I don’t immediately give them my VISA Card number, passwords, and send them, right now, the $7,200 I owe them in taxes. I have grown to loathe the harbor boat hooter that announces I have won a cruise from Florida to Mexico on a super cruise ship …. that is probably a rusty tug boat that will take me twice around the harbor, be declared un-seaworthy, and leave me stranded miles from anywhere and paying a fortune to get myself home … and all I have to do is … Click! I think it’s the marketing surveys that really get my goat though. I am no expert, but I have read up on surveys and designed some myself. What I love-hate about telephone surveys is the lack of real choice, the forced direction in which they push you, the pre-determined result on which the designers are fixated. I know it’s a waste of time, but I occasionally indulge: “On a scale of 1-5, where 5 is good and 1 is poor, how would you rate … ” I explain that the question and the ratings do not work, but they are adamant that I must answer from 1-5. Yes, they understand that it can’t really be done, but yes, it must be done, because that’s what they are paid to do. O tempora o mores … “O tempora o mores” is a Latin phrase that translates literally as Oh the times! Oh the customs! but more accurately as Oh what times! Oh what customs! or alternatively, Alas the times, and the manners (Wikipedia). Oh boy, what an enjoyable rant. “Enough, no more. It is not as sweet now as it was before.” (Shakespeare).

Commentary: And that is another way to create. You find the splitting point in an already written narrative and, realizing that you have two narratives, not one, you divide the passage, rewrite the offending portion, and come up with something equally original, slightly different, and, in this case, hopefully funny. I leave that to the reader to judge the effect of the humor. The writing technique, however, is well worth recognizing, studying, and pursuing. One further point: sometimes it is necessary to be cruel to be kind. Splitting the earlier piece (oh cruel world) leads to the creation of two quite neat pieces (oh happy days).

By all means use these pieces and ideas as a prompt for your own memory writing. If you do, remember the suggestions I made earlier (and copy below). And, above all, have fun.

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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Writing Memories 2

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Writing Memories 2

Thoughts and exercises on the role of memory as we grow and age.
“We are not just writers, we are re-writers.”

“Every attempt
is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
because one has only learnt to get the better of words
for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
one is no longer disposed to say it.” (T. S. Eliot, East Coker)

Module 1.1: Triumphs

I began this section with a poem, quiet short. When I wrote it, I liked it. I revised it a couple of times. Here it is.

Triumphs

Waking to birdsong in the morning,
making it safely to the bathroom
without tripping on the rug in the hall,
shaving without cutting my face,

getting in and out of the shower
with neither a slip nor a fall,
drying those parts of the body
that are now so difficult to reach,

especially between my far-off toes,
pulling my shirt over wet and sticky
patches still damp from the shower,
negotiating each leg of my pants,

tugging the pulleys of the plastic mold
that allows my socks to glide onto my feet,
forcing swollen toes into undersized shoes,
hobbling to the top of the stairs

and lurching down them, cautiously,
one step at a time … on guard for the cat,
the edge of the steps, the worn patches
where my stick might catch or slip …
one more step, and I’ve made it down.

Commentary: Triumphs in our daily lives. That is the theme for this first module. For many of us, at our age in life, just surviving from day to day is a triumph. I welcome each dawn. I am happy to get out of bed. I love my early morning sit at the computer, my first cup of de-caffeinated green tea, my breakfast. However, I did not know how many of you, if any, wrote prose rather than poetry, so for the purpose of this workshop, I turned my poem into a prose poem by eliminating the line spacing and running the lines together. This is the result. At first it doesn’t seem that different, but really the pieces are now miles apart.

Triumphs [Prose 1]

Waking to birdsong in the morning, making it safely to the bathroom without tripping on the rug in the hall, shaving without cutting my face, getting in and out of the shower with neither a slip nor a fall, drying those parts of the body that are now so difficult to reach, especially between my far-off toes, pulling my shirt over wet and sticky patches still damp from the shower, negotiating each leg of my pants, tugging the pulleys of the plastic mold that allows my socks to glide onto my feet, forcing swollen toes into shoes now much too small, hobbling to the top of the stairs and lurching down them, cautiously, one step at a time … on guard for the cat, the edge of the steps, the worn patches where my stick might catch or slip … one more step, and I’ve made it down.

Commentary: In many ways, it’s the same piece. However, I have eliminated a word or two and expanded on a couple of things. “The olde order changeth lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” (Tennyson, The Idylls of the King, I think. Memory sometimes fails me). Does the poem function as a prose piece? I didn’t think so and I decided to change it.

Triumphs [Prose 2]

    Waking to moonlight in the middle of the night, making it safely to the bathroom without tripping on the rug in the hall, managing to pee without splattering the floor, the seat, the wall, or my pajamas, climbing back into bed, staring at the stars’ diminishing light until I manage to fall back to sleep. Waking to birdsong in the morning, walking to the bathroom without bruising my left arm against the door latch, shaving without cutting my face, getting in and out of the shower with neither a slip nor a fall and without dropping the soap, drying those parts of my body that are now so difficult to reach, especially between those far-off toes that I no longer see with regularity, pulling my shirt over those wet and sticky patches of skin still damp from the shower, negotiating each leg of my pants hanging on to the arm of the rocking-chair so I won’t fall over,  tugging the pulleys of the plastic mold that allows each sock to glide onto my feet, hoping my toe-nails, uncut for so long, will not catch in the wool and that the heel will end up in the right spot, forcing swollen toes into shoes now much too small, hobbling to the top of the stairs and lurching down them, one step at a time, with my stick in one hand and the balustrade in the other, … always on guard for the quick, unsuspected rush of the cat, the edge of the steps, the worn patches where my cane might catch or slip … one more step, and I’ve made it down. The first of today’s tiny triumphs.

Commentary: Which version is best? Does each version improve upon its model? I think that the answer to those questions will vary with each writer / reader. The author of this piece must choose between poetry and prose, between a brief prose version or a longer one, between a fairly straight-forward version and one that employs layered rhetorical techniques.

The most important thing is for the writer to be aware of the possibilities inherent in each of the three versions. Equally important is for the writer to know that s/he can experiment, write, revise, rewrite. In the workshop, I read the third version and invited the participants to write about triumphs in their own lives. I also suggested that they experiment with different forms of writing. Here are some examples.

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.

It is easy to experiment with pieces such as these. I have used first person singular [I]. Try using the second person [you]. Try using the third person [he or she]. Change the person, change the point of view. Each writer will say something different and add something different when observing from a different position. And it’s fun to take out the personal and add in things that are more objective.

“You awoke to moonlight in the middle of the night. You made it safely to the bathroom without tripping on the rug in the hall. You manged to pee without the sound of floor splatter. When you came back to bed, your pajamas were still dry. When your head hit the pillow, you went straight back to sleep and  started to snore. I lay there staring at the stars, hoping to be visited by sleep.”

The observing “I” creeps in at the end, but it doesn’t have to. Different story, different people. But remember: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And remember, too, that writing is fun. If there’s no fun, there’s no future.

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