Monte Alban

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Funny things, photos. When I updated my I-Mac, and I-photo became Photo, I lost some 10,000 photos, or more. Thanks to some hard work over the weekend by one of my good friends, we re-established contact with the missing photos. Skimming through them, I found this one, my words and Clare’s  computer art. I wrote it a long time ago, sometime after 1995, when I first visited Oaxaca. This piece records a visit I made, with Hayden Leaman, another good friend and an Oaxacan savant, to Monte Alban.

Under a hot sun that weighed us down and struck us like a hammer on an anvil, we wandered around the archaeological site and met with many vendors, some of whom seemed to have genuine artefacts, while others obviously offered us fakes. I couldn’t believe how the old men first discovered and then sat in the thin lines of shade emanating from a post, an edge, or a corner, la grata sombra / the welcome shade, as they say in Spanish. This one gentleman, who told us he had walked over from Arrazola,  some six kilometres or so away, asked us for nothing, chatted with us, and proved to be a wonderful source of local information. It was a pleasure to share our water with him. He was the possessor, he assured us, of a genuine green card, and didn’t believe in illegal immigration.

The words in the picture above summarize my thoughts at the time. I asked Hayden later where he wanted to go. He looked around at the temples, the monuments, the tombs, the ball court, the observatory … “Who wants to go anywhere?” he replied. “I am happy right here.”

I visited this and other sites later with Clare. She too proved to be very adept at finding the shade and just sitting still. Look and listen carefully: you too may be able to see and feel the beauty and the silence.

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Impact

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Impact

This photo comes up from nowhere, springs into your half-awake mind, diminishes your reality. W5: who, what, why, when where? But there is no who, save the person bearing witness to this moment in time, and you, the double witness who also contemplates and is therefore complicit.

Do you recognize this scene? Is this a moment in your life? Are you the one who struck the match and lit the flames in the lower corners? And are they even flames? Or are they moments of glory, flashes of fireworks, the world coming alive in a moment of combustion when light and dark are mingled until, fiat lux / let there be light, and the world is reborn, light and form, drawn from darkness, and earth and sea divided into separate realms. In principium erat verbum / in the beginning was the word and the world was born / reborn in this verbal-visual instant between sleeping and awakening, when dreams gain substance and ideas take on form and shape and grow in the observer’s mind until creation sparks into life.

Who now knows what will be, what might be? We see. We bear witness. We paint, draw verbal pictures, take snapshots, unfold our souls, placing them on paper and canvas capturing them by camera in snapshots … but What’s it all about, Alfie? Do you remember the film? The suspension in space, the knowledge that all is absurd, that this is a jigsaw puzzle of the worst kind, with no solution, no answer, and every path bifurcating before us, and each of us wandering in a maze, a labyrinth, with an entrance, but no exit.

Do you think up or down, when you’re floating in a space without gravity, where nothing is substantial and all the rules you ever learned no longer hold? The roller-coaster rolls on and you hang on, and sometimes the sun comes up and sometimes the sun goes down, and is that the first light of morning or is it the last light of day, and how can you be sure?

And where is it anyway? Have you ever been there? And if I told you where it was , what time of day it was, or what time of night, would you believe me? And if not, why not? And who and what am I? And why do you trust what I say? And why would you trust me, when you have never met me, and you do not even know who I am, or where I am, or what I am, and even I do not really know who I am or why I am, and why does any of this matter?

It matters because we need faith, we need substance, we need hope, we need to believe in something other than ourselves and beyond ourselves. We still want to wake in the morning and see the dawn. We want to grasp it in our hands, not just in our minds, and know that there is light beyond this darkness, there is hope beyond this gloom, there are better things ahead. See that forgotten candle? Pick it up. Take that match. Strike it against the box. Now light that candle. Take it out. Show it to other people. Encourage them to light their own candles.

Sometimes we need to enlighten the world, to turn it round, to reject it as it seems to be and to recreate it in our own image.  But take care: the image of the candle is not that of the laser beam or the searchlight. One by one, the small people, we must join together, and like tiny stars and light up the firmament. I cannot do it alone. But together, you, and you, and you, and you, if you walk with me, we can do our best. And that is the best we can do, in this, as Voltaire’s Candide once called it, the best of all worlds and the only one we have.

 

My Favorite Pen

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My Favorite Pen

This is my oldest Mont Blanc fountain pen. I must have bought it in 1986 when I traveled to London to attend a Spanish Golden Age seminar at one of the university colleges. I can’t remember which, though I do remember the seminar was on someone called Francisco de Quevedo. We met like spies, my pen friend and I, on the steps of the British Museum. I had never met him before, so he carried a specific book under his arm, one of Quevedo’s I think, by which I would recognize him. We lunched together at an Italian Trattoria, whose name also escapes me, and we discussed the ways of that ancient Hispanic world and our own research upon it. I paid for our lunch from my travel funds. I had a sabbatical that year and had arranged a short tour of four or five British universities in my search for knowledge. After lunch, he took me back to his London college and I sat and absorbed wisdom from 2:00 until 5:00 pm.

After the seminar, walking back to the nearest tube station, I passed a shop that had this Mont Blanc in the window. I went in and bought it. On the spot. No second thoughts. Then I caught the tube to Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer. A well-dressed man, slightly older than me, asked if he could join me. I said yes. He sat down and began to talk. He told me how to commit suicide by slashing my wrist with a knife.  There were many incorrect ways to do it, he explained. But only one right way, if you wanted to be successful. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me his collection of scars that ran crisscross and welted over his left wrist. Failed attempts, he said. But I’ll get it right next time. I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes as me, if you decided to try it.

Must go, I told him. My train’s about to leave. I left the remains of my pint on the table, looked back, and watched him finishing my beer. Good job I didn’t spit in it, I thought. Then I realized that I probably had, one way or another. I boarded my train and 90 minutes later I was back in Cardiff. No more post-war, coal and steam engines, a diesel this, powerful, fast, and smelly. It reduced the former four hour journey to much, much less than two. Cafeteria style, the train carriage offered a table top for every four seats. I opened my new pen and wrote in the pocket journal I had bought for the trip.

So many memories. But I don’t remember the names of either of these two men. I do recall those scars, though, deep and ridged, crisscrossing like railway tracks. Every time we clicked over a junction or a cross track I shivered and my writing wiggled on the page.

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Trains (2)

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Another Kind of Train

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar.

Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering. Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the Western Mail on your bed. You never opened it. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to run from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.

Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we didn’t have enough time, you and I. We were always tied up our separate thoughts. As we flashed by, platform lights blazed in the night beneath fiery stars, scarce glimpsed in the artificial lighting. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness. Sometimes we stopped at these stations, watching as other passengers came and went.

We rattled over so many cross-tracks, without ever knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of wheels on tracks, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping up and down, the cattle in the fields grazing peacefully, then occasionally looking up as we passed. We rarely talked. I guess we had so little of substance to say. The trivia was too trivial and the big questions went unspoken, unanswered to this day. Noses in the Dandy or the Beano or Woman’s Weekly, we flashed past so many railway signals with their pointed mechanical warnings.

High Street Station, Swansea. The terminus ad quem. The nec plus ultra. The Great Western Railway’s Pillar of Hercules. In my dreams, I stand by the buffer stops, alone, knowing that you will never be aboard any train I may go to the station to meet.

Pen Friends

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Pen Friends

A writing day, today: so, spoiled by choices, even though some of those choices have grown wings and flown away. Pen friends and mood pens: I think I’ll begin with … and they are color coordinated for ink … this one … but you’ll never know which I chose … Maybe it will be my Waterman’s: speckled blue, second left. I do love pens: so essential to write with. Cursive hand-writing too, no longer taught in schools. It has become my secret code: nobody can read it.

But do you remember when pen friends really were pen friends and you wrote long letters to people in France, or Spain, or Germany, so they could practice their English and you could practice whatever language they spoke? I can remember playing postal chess with some of my pen friends. A move per letter and each letter taking a week or more to arrive. A full game with a pawn ending could take years! Did anyone ever meet their pen friends, I wonder? I know I did. I think of the immediacy of today’s online dating sites and I sometimes sigh for the old days. Courting by fountain pen … the slow and solemn can-can of two tortoises in the Carnival of Animals by Saint-Saens.

I write every day in a hand-written journal and have done so most days since 1985. I also keep a pocket notebook for odd moments, usually when I am outside in Mactaquac, or Funday National Park, or on Prince Edward Island, or at the beach in Ste. Luce-sur-mer, or beach-combing in Passamaquoddy. If I manage to write anything decent, I transfer these written ‘gems’ to the computer, where I revise and re-work. My poetry is almost always penned, but short stories usually go straight onto the computer, as do the novels, I have written three, though ideas and plans for stories and chapters do appear in the journals. I have come to think of the journals as a quarry and a memorandum, the computer as a workshop.

Come to think about it, I have, in the not-so-distant past, given workshops and seminars on just this topic. It is a very useful and informative subject, especially for beginning writers. With it comes the statement that (a) we must learn to recognize good writing when we see it; (b) we must learn to recognize, and reject, poor and weak writing; and (c) we must realize that we are not writers, we are re-writers. I always recommend people to keep their early drafts. Our tendency as re-writers may well be to revise out the energy and spontaneity of the original. This usually happens when the high-school policeman (thank you, Ted Hughes) steps into our brain and lectures us on how to write properly and correctly. If we lose that initial emotion, we must re-re-visit the original flow and try to recapture it recapture it in the re-re-write. Now here’s a good question: how many re-re-re’s can we get in there?

 

Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus

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Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus
Happy St. David’s Day

March the First, St. David’s Day:  and here, in Island View, the snow accumulates and I can hardly see the trees at the bottom of the garden. A squirrel gnaws at the sunflower seeds put out by my beloved on the step by the sliding window so that Princess Squiffy, the house cat, can have her morning cartoon show, her Squiff and Squirrel, through the glass of the sliding door. Nose to nose, cat and squirrel, separated only by a thin layer of glass, stare at each other, like Roman gladiators.

Temperatures are still low and snow continues to fall. Softly, gently, it fills the hoof prints left in the old snow by the hungry deer who come each night to empty the bird feeders.  Gone, all gone, everything that squirrel and bird have left behind. Seven deer visit us. They troop through the garden every night, moving from tree line to feeder along regular pathways trodden down by their hooves. Sometimes I see them, in the middle of the night. They cast eerie shadows beneath the moon and startle if I move too fast and they spy me at a window. If I am quiet, I see their delicate muzzles, their long black tongues reaching out to lap up the precious seeds that will keep them going through this long, hard Canadian winter, a winter made even harder this year with its incredible changes, its highs and lows, its rains and snows, its fogs and thaws, its icy rain, then plummeting temperatures with black ice threatening again and again.

St. David’s Day/ Dydd Dewi Sant. In Cardiff / Caer Dydd, the daffodils blow their trumpets beneath already flourishing trees. The Feeder Brook, aka the Black Weir,  flows steadily through Blackweir Gardens to join the Taff  and the Taff runs out to join the Severn, and the Severn flows out into the Irish Sea, and that joins the Atlantic, and the Atlantic flows into the Bay of Fundy, and the River St. John flows past the end of my road to eventually join the Bay of Fundy and then the Atlantic Ocean, and now, on St. David’s Day, we hold hands in a great North Atlantic Wave and we are all united, from snowy sea to shiny sea.

My day-dreams carry me back to Cymru / Wales, that land of song where the wind conducts the daffodils and their pale, brass voices are raised in a hymn of hope that all will be well, that their spring, that was once my spring, will join this spring, that is now my spring, and that sunshine and flowers will triumph and that brighter days will soon return …

Not that these days aren’t bright. A new snake skin of snow covers the ground and the old, sloughed skin gradually disappears as a blank, fresh page invites new footprints.  A new month, a new page, a new beginning.  The signatures of crow and squirrel, Blue Jay and Chickadee, cat and dog appear as if by magic in the garden’s autograph album. A mysterious finger traces those special words Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus / Happy St. David’s Day and the snow continues falling, blanking out all memories from my old man’s mind.

Trains

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Trains

     You took me on holiday to the continent. Railway trains to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You loved those trains. I hated them. We stopped in the dark at unknown stations. I’m thirsty, you said. Get me some tea. I left the train, climbed down to the platform, went to the restaurant. I had a fistful of money, but didn’t know what it was worth. Tea? I begged the man behind the bar. My mother wants tea. They all shook their heads and offered me beer. My turn to say no. Coffee?  A pause. Uh-uh. They offered me orange juice, lemon juice, wine, and I finally water. A whistle shrilled. It’s the train, they said waving their hands in the direction of the door. I let them choose the money they wanted.  And something to eat. They gave me a sandwich, a slice of cheese in a baguette, then seized some more coins. The engine hooted, a lonely owl, calling for its lost chick.  I ran out of the restaurant, on to the platform. Carriages moved past, slow at first, gathering speed. The last passengers climbing aboard, the doors closing. I ran. The guard, at the end of the train, blew his whistle, waved a green flag, held the last door open, until I caught up. He helped me onto the train, gifting me with a storm of words in a language I could not understand. The doors between the wagons remained locked. My compartment lay to the front of the train. I couldn’t remember the number of my carriage or my seat. Wagons-Lits? I shook my head. Première classe? I shrugged. Touristique? I nodded. The guard grimaced, led me down the train, unlocked doors in the sleepers, led me on and on, until we arrived at my compartment. Restrained by another guard, you yelled and shed tears as you tried to pull the emergency cord that would stop the train. Ah, there you are. What the hell do you think you’re doing? I was worried sick. You slapped me. Now I stand on a different kind of platform, watching another train pull away. I stand here, abandoned, and watch you slide slowly into an unreachable distance.