Insomnia

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Insomnia

Mine was at its worst in Moncton in 2015. I was committed to eight weeks of radiation treatment, and after two weeks, I slept restlessly, if at all. Some of the other residents of the hospice were worse off than me. They got up at all hours of the night and paced the floors downstairs, nursing their wounds, both mental and physical, searching for the peace and the sleep that eluded them. I never went down to join them. My case was different. All cases are slightly different. In spite of this society’s attempts at social engineering, each of us is an individual and we deal with our own problems in our own way.

In my case, the need to pee during the night dominated my sleep. I would sleep in ninety minute cycles, then get up and visit the bathroom, then return to bed for another ninety minutes. Sometimes, I was lucky and the cycles went for two hours, or two and a half hours. I rarely got more than three hours sleep. Upon returning to bed, I would often just lie there, remembering, thinking, musing, hoping, waiting for sleep to come. Often my cycle would reject the sleep I needed, and I just lay there waiting until I was ready to pee again. These were not great times. Luckily I never fell asleep so deeply that I wet the bed. Some did, but I was one of the lucky ones and managed to keep my bedding clean.

During this time, I learned to divide the night into segments. I thought of the segment that ran from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am as an uphill climb with the initial joy of dropping off to sleep tempered by the knowledge that the urge to urinate would soon be upon me. The segment from 3 am to 4 am was the plateau at the top of the hill: I rarely slept during this period and would look frequently at my clock while the minutes ticked by. Sometimes I would turn on the light and just watch the second hand throbbing slowly round. It was like watching sand sift through an hour glass, or water sift through the fingers: uncontrollable, unstoppable, life just slipping away. I had plenty of time to think and much to think about. I relived my life during those eight weeks and a lot of it was unpleasant as I blamed myself for the situation I was in.

At 4 am, the universe shifted, and I was able to relax and slide downhill into the Land of Winking, Blinking, and Nod. With the urges of the earlier segments fading, I would often get two sound sleeps at this stage, one from 4 to 6 and the other from 6-8. If I was lucky, I would sleep from 4-7, or even 4-7:30 am. These were bonus nights and I awoke after a three hour sleep session to find myself greatly refreshed.

Three years after my treatment, many things have returned to normal However, those sleep patterns have not changed that much. I no longer feel the need to urinate at such regular intervals, but I still dip in and out of those same sleep cycles. They have become a part of my system. The easy part, tired, sleeping from bed-time to about 2:30-3:00. The lying awake, anywhere between 2:30 – 4:30, then the relaxing slip into dreamland, for the last part of the night.

The good thing is that my dreams have changed. I am no longer chased by the ghosts of times past who pace through my night, awake and asleep, to prove that my suffering is due to past moments of childhood iniquities discovered in soulful daily examinations  induced by a consciousness of minute sins demanded by the weekly confessional. Now, I dream of many things, of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and if the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. This is much more fun: I find I can now control my dreams, re-think them, and re-write the endings. In my waking periods I do just this, and my dreams adapt and change and become more pleasant as I fall back into sleep. This has turned into a time of great creativity: but that is a tale for another day.

Cooking

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Cooking

My Welsh grandmother, not my Irish one, taught me how to cook. At the time, I was the only grandchild. Whenever she cooked and I was in the house, she would take me into the kitchen, stand me on a stool by the gas stove, and encourage me to stir as the mixtures swirled and bubbled in pan or pot. I also helped her shell the peas, slice the carrots, whatever. When the preparation was ready, she would set aside a small portion that was mine. This might be a cake in the oven, a pair of biscuits shaped awkwardly by my own hand, or a small side pot of soup. “There’s nobody else,” she would whisper to me. “The old ways will die if I don’t teach you.” She was the one who taught me the exact moment when Welsh Cakes were ready to be molded, and there’s only one way to learn: place your hands in the mix. The right texture, as they say in the cookbooks, is ‘fine grain sand’ but you have to experience it to be certain what those words really mean.

I was a latch-key kid, as they now call them. Both my parents worked all day, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning until 4 or 5 at night. Being able to cook meant that I never starved and I remember cooking soups, Cawl Mamgu among others, at a very early age. When I started traveling to France and Spain, I often ended up in various kitchens where I listened to the women as they prepared the food. Language and cooking went hand in hand and I learned how to roast coffee beans in a cast-iron frying pan, how to vary my range of soups, how to prepare casseroles, how to scramble eggs the continental way.

When I studied in Santander, Spain, my landlady left me, every night, one onion, one potato, and one egg. This was for the Spanish omelette that I ate most evenings. She cooked the first one for me, supervised me as I cooked the second one, and then abandoned me to my own devices. I often heard her snoring as I lit the gas, warmed the pan, and started to prepare my tortilla española. I still make Spanish omelettes, and they are delicious, but here in Canada they are never quite the same as they were in Spain. The ingredients look the same, olive oil, egg, salt and pepper, potatoes and onions … but the eggs are not Spanish free-range eggs from country hens and the oil, the potatoes, the onions, the salt … everything looks the same, but tastes vastly different.

Two days ago I bought a pound of fresh hake, merluza in Spanish. I cooked it in butter, half poached, half-sautéed. We ate half that night. Next day, I struggled with my thoughts: should I make fish cakes from the rest of the fish, or should I make a fish soup / sopa de pescado? Fish soup won. I put some truffle flavored olive oil into the frying pan, sliced small a tomato fresh from the garden, added a finely chopped onion, spiced it with sea salt, and added a small pinch of pimentón picante / hot Spanish paprika from La Vega in Spain. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then added some sherry. Into this mixture I put the rest of the hake together with the butter sauce that remained from the night before. The dish looked inviting, was very colorful, but appeared to be small and insufficient for the hungry eyes that followed the process. I added four large shrimp, sliced into four pieces each, a large scallop, thinly sliced, and sufficient water to thin the gathered liquids. Then I chopped up some sugar peas and added them as well. My sopa de pescado had undergone a sea change and become a sopa de mariscos / a sea food soup. The colors amazed: reds, yellows, oranges, and touches of green. On the spur of the moment, I named it New Brunswick Autumn Foliage. I tested it regularly as it simmered and it was ready when the sea food was done. Delicious.

I don’t know when my grandmother was born, or where, other than somewhere in Wales. I celebrate her birthday every time I cook something special, and my last two meals were very special. I don’t know where you are, Nana. You left us a long time ago. But wherever you are, thank you so much for the gifts you gave me. And Nana, I love you. You have traveled with me from Wales to Canada, and I celebrate you and your birthday every time I cook.

Ruins

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Ruins

There are many types of ruins, ruined castles, ruined churches, ruined monasteries, old stone circles fallen into ruins, barns alongside the highway, backs broken, roofs caved in, old people beg, still clean and proud, outside the supermarket, proud, yes, but still more or less ruined. And then there are unkempt gardens that fall into ruin when summer crawls to the burnt out embers of  its heat.

When I came back from my week’s creative retreat in KIRA, our garden lay in ruins. The hollyhock still stood, but it was on its last legs, drying up. It didn’t imitate the dead sticks of the yucca plant, four flowers this year, nor the dried up foliage of summer flowers. Nevertheless, wind and rain have now brought him close to his end, poor thing. I want to remember him in all his glory. I want to see beyond this bent, withered stick of a plant that slowly bows its head to look down at its roots. My hollyhock, please, in all his glory!

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All our glories! I too am in decay and falling into ruin. I dug out an old photo of myself. Bristol University, 1964, running for the First Cross-Country VIII on the Bristol – Weston road relay. Hugh Arnold was just handing off to me and I was setting out on my 5 mile leg of the race. Young, fit, no grey hairs, no wrinkles, no limp, no stoop: it was a five mile leg that I would complete in about 25 minutes. Alas, slow is me: it takes me that long now to walk 400 metres. And I need rests and a stick to help me on my way.

Standing amidst he ruins of my life, yes. But I stand proud, my head held as high as I can hold it. I can honestly say I have done my best. And what more can anyone do? Athletics, rugby, coaching, research, publishing, teaching, facilitating workshops and retreats, travelling, editing, creative writing … it has been a crazy life, packed with fun and adventure and no, I do not regret a moment of it.

Come to think of it, unlike many people, I have actually lived many lives. My first took place in Britain and Europe. Then in September, 1966, I was reborn as a Canadian. Each subsequent Fall, at the beginning of September, as each new academic year began and the year’s cycle turned round to freshness and intellectual renewal, I was born again. Teaching, coaching, working with young people: what wonderful things to do. Now, I look at the ruined garden and remember the joys of summer. They will return. My hollyhock will also be back. He has sown his seeds throughout the flowerbeds and sooner or later he will return. I too have sown seeds: the seeds of joy, knowledge, learning, creativity. I too will live on in the many virtual children whose minds I have inhabited and helped to shape.  Winter is drawing near. The cold and the dark encroach: but, like my garden, I will be back.

Early Bird

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This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. Kingsbrae held their painting session for children in June 2017, and I joined in with the five and six year olds. It was such wonderful fun. They slapped the paint onto the canvas with unbounded joy. It was hard not to be joyful with them. Many of them expressed curiosity about my painting: “What is it?” then later “What are they saying to each other?” The conversation between bird and worm (or whatever it is) was of incredible importance to them. I thought of it as my “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” moment. Now that’s confidence for you.

My strange accent, slowly developing as mid-Atlantic Welsh, with a touch of West Country English and a dab of Upper Canadian and a touch of New Brunswick also fascinated them. “Where are you from?” “Fredericton.” “No. Where are you really from?” “Island View, New Brunswick.” “No. Where were you from before that?” The questions continued until they had ascertained that indeed, I was not a Canadian, a real Canadian, even though I was in Toronto in 1967 to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. 1967: that’s 51 years ago, and I still support the Maple Leafs and I still have my strange overseas accent. “You’re weird,” they told me. “I’ve been in Canada a lot longer than you,” I told them. “Where did you grow up?” They asked. I silenced them with my answer: “I don’t think I have yet.”

Happy paint-splashers, we dabbed on and on in alternating mirth and silence. Some left the table and walked away. Geoff collected our paintings and left them to dry. Later that day, we hung this painting on the wall in the KIRA dining room. It sat there for several days and nobody noticed it. Alas, a hawk-eyed young lady finally spotted it the first night she came over for dinner and “What is that?” she asked, pointing at my painting. Bold and italics combined cannot reproduce the scorn and disdain rolled up in the single word: that. I remember the butler in a country house in Somerset removing with a pair of tongs the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker from the weekend newspapers left on the doorstep. He, too, was very disdainful.

I also remember the tone of an Old Etonian, well he said he was an Old Etonian and had a rasping, high-pitched nasality that made him sound the part. This jolly goof fellow summed me up at a dinner party one night in Toronto when I first came to Canada: “Oh, you’re Welsh.” The grate of his voice was the scrape of a stick removing a dog turd from a shoe. “No,” I said. “Irish, actually.” I used my broadest Welsh accent. “My family is Irish Catholic not Capel Cymraig / Welsh Chapel. Moore is an Irish name. Llewellyn ad Jones are Welsh names. I am not called Llewellyn or Jones.”

And this reminds me of my father, standing in the elevator in a posh hotel in Bordeaux, when three Irishmen walked in. They scanned him for a moment, and then one said, in the broadest of Southern Irish brogues: “T’is the map of Ireland written all over your face.” “Yes,” says my father in his thick, Welsh accent, “I am Irish. But I was born in England.” And that brings me back to my painting. Is it the early bird that catches the worm or the late worm that gets caught by the bird? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, the beauty of children. They accept, often without judgement and often without speculation and I love their readiness to befriend the growing child within the old man as he ages. They may not hold doctorates in philosophy, but by golly they are true philosophers in their finest moments. And then of course, they go to school to learn how to behave … and may the good Lord have mercy on them.

Surrealism

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Surrealism
KIRA Retreat Day 4

Only one of the Kingsbrae alpacas could understand and illustrate what we did today. This one showed us so many things. Luckily we smuggled him into the writing classes and the art classes and nobody was any the wiser. In fact he taught one class himself, and one participant served as translator, moving from Spanish to English with almost as much ease as he taught.

He began this morning with a reading that linked Symbolism to Surrealism to Magical Realism. It was a fascinating piece that nobody in the room, myself included, had ever heard before. So, we began with a concrete, literary example, then moved to a theoretical session. The alpaca began by explaining the difference between a lama, an alpaca, and a vicuña. This was extremely interesting, and something we hadn’t considered before. Luckily, these three creatures, two of them mythical (but which two?), do not have-isms attached to them and were therefore much easier to understand.

The lama began the theoretical session by offering some meditation exercises, very peace-giving.  Then he moved into the nitty-gritty of automatic writing. He followed this with some examples of how, rather than copying the automatic writing, we could select prime elements from it. This selection process allows the writer to mine the subconscious while avoiding some of the repetitious nature of the automated pen on the suppliant page.

In all cases, all participants read from their work and the sharing of subconscious inanities was a great way to break any ice that came with the overnight change in the weather.

After lunch, we had a second writing exercise that stretched into two exercises. These were courtesy of a second lama and entailed describing unknown and known objects. One of the participants was very uncooperative and instead of writing words drew pictures in his notebook. This drew comments of ‘Naughty, naughty,” from the lama and that student was given a time out on the golf cart driven round the lawn by the KIRA equivalent of Mad Max.

In our final session, the art lama appeared. He had carefully plucked all the flowers in Kingsbrae and then eaten them. However, in an incredible act of bravery, the ladies present stole some from his hoard and placed them in water cups. The participants then scattered random dots of paint upon a canvas and agreed that, seen from a distance and in the dark, they looked like flowers on a tarmac road under storm clouds on a thundery night when nothing could be seen.

By now, the lama who had been tied to the fishing weir, oh, I forgot to tell you about that, sorry, had been rescued when the Old Sow let the water out of the Passamaquoddy bath tub (aka low tide). Luckily no harm was done and a delicious, fossilized piece of Turkish Delight was shared by the participants all of whom agreed that nothing like this had ever happened to them before, and I believe them.

Mad Max took everyone for a ride on the Golf Cart and we all chased deer round the Kingsbrae Gardens while singing “I’ve been working on the chain gang” and “For it’s a jolly good yellow.”

Green

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Green
KIRA Day 3

Where has the time gone? Don’t answer that question. The Retreat has settled into a structure of its own and outside time no longer has any meaning. The internal time of the retreat runs smoothly as clockwork, a wooden, self-oiling clockwork, of the most delicate kind.

08:00 – 09:00 Breakfast. We gather in the kitchen and the conversations begin over breakfast. We talk about the previous night’s readings, the plans we have for the day, or whether we want to workshop of just retire to our studios and write.

09:00 – 10:30 Workshop time. Each morning we have a topic and we illustrate it and discuss it fully. Each workshop also comes with ideas and prompts for writing. At the end of  each workshop, we plan the rest of the day. We hold regular Blue Pencil Cafés in which facilitators and participants discuss submitted work. We suggested about 20 minutes for the BPCs, but my first one last over an hour and we managed to get through half a poem. Jeremy’s first one lasted an hour and a half (prose) and he covered more ground than me. My second one was marvelous: we spent an hour or more on one paragraph, three lines.

What happens in the BPCs is unbelievable. It’s not just the revision of the poem or the piece of prose, but a wide-ranging discussion on theories, ideas, prompts, the nature of writing, directions a piece may take, the nature of creativity, where inspiration comes from, how it may be channeled, how writing occurs, where it can lead … incredibly exhausting at times, yet energy fills us and we are always ready to write, re-write, revise, and talk again.

14:00 – 16:00 Art School. On Tuesday, Geoff Slater sat us down with paper and paint and we experimented with color, the creation of color, the basics of primary colors, how to make secondary colors, how to create the color wheel. Geoff enthralled us: never will the color wheel ever look the same again. Never will I use a color again without thinking in depth about it’s composition and meaning. Green no longer means Green: it means so much more. I read Lorca’s Romance Sonámbulo, this morning, and it took on all sorts of different and very new meanings. Verde, que te quiero verde. Green, for I love you green … green wind … green branches … green flesh … green hair … 

I sat opposite Geoff this morning. Behind him, green bushes, green trees, green leaves, green grass, green foliage … Yesterday, I paid little attention to all that green-ness. Today it fascinated me and I was able to distinguish between the amount of yellow, the amount of blue, the lightening factor, the darkening factor, the tinges of red and brown and oh to be able to capture it all, all that green-ness, all that certainty, blurred into a sea of green.

16:00 -17:30 BPC time. We pair up facilitator / participant and share our work. Each day a different piece, a different conversation, an advancement of yesterday’s talks, another step or two forward. Sometimes we take tiny steps. Other times we make gigantic leaps. Time and space lose meaning. We have been gifted with something different and we are truly blessed.

18:00 – 19:30 Dinner. This is a sumptuous meal provided by the Garden Café, our very own award-winning Kingsbrae Garden Café. The group is open. The man who provides us with desserts, he makes them in our kitchen, specially for us, joins us as we sit at the table and we add culinary art to the poetry, prose, and painting that we are always discussing.

19:30 – 21:30 Readings. We read what we have written during the day and facilitators and participants share together. I try to choose work of mine that reflects the day’s themes. Linking theory (morning) to practice (evenings) is also a fascinating procedure. We finish the evening by planning the next day’s work. The key to the retreat is flexibility. We respond to each others’ needs. Colors are important? We concentrate on colors and read about them in our evening sessions. Today we talked symbols. Tonight I will offer a reading in which symbols play an enormous role.

Alas: my free time is over. Now I must descend and return to the joys of BPCs, discussion, dinner, and the evening’s read. Farewell for now: I will be back as soon as I can.

 

KIRA 1

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KIRA 1

Our first full day at KIRA, and it’s not over yet.

Last night we had our first dinner together, courtesy of Kingsbrae Garden Café. Wonderful food and a dessert to live for. All of the participants gathered around the table and we were graced with the presence of Mrs. Lucinda Flemer. Conversation was lively, with each of us defining our position and interests in various art forms ranging through painting, print-making, poetry, photography, short stories, and memoirs.

After dinner, we discussed the nature of the retreat itself. This centered on several areas: Establishing Goals, Towards a Shared Experience, Building a Creative Community, and Managing Expectations. We discussed an agenda for this morning (Monday) and agreed upon an action plan for our first day. We also agreed that we would achieve what we could during the first day and then change, as necessary, if change were needed. The main things: be flexible, be creative, talk together, work together, support each other, and cater, small group, to each individual.

This morning we discussed the creation of a personal time and space for writing. Each one spoke of where and when they wrote. We made some suggestions as to how time and place might be achieved, even during a busy working day. We then spoke about journals, pocket notebooks, hard work versus inspiration, and the need to recognize gems when we created them. Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. The hard yards must be put in at the beginning. Before long they will no longer be hard. The idea of the artist as a traveler was discussed. We are all making similar journeys, but we are all on different points along the way. Many of us were helped in our beginning days, and we in our turn must now help others.

We then worked on specific goals for each person, facilitators and participants. This was very person-specific. We agreed upon a schedule for Blue Pencil Cafés and gave the first ones later in the afternoon. We finished with a ten word exercise, courtesy of Jeremy Gilmer. Write a ten word story. We took time off to write and then ended the session by reading our efforts to each other. Great fun and a good time was had by all.

My own BPC went very well. More about that later, perhaps. It went on much longer than I expected and we both had great fun looking at a poem in all it’s different shapes, meanings, and possibilities. Tonight, we have our first set of readings and we will see how they go. The BPC material, reworked, should be ready for later. Again: it will be fun and words, thoughts, and ideas, will creatively take wing and fly.