Clematis

Not clematis, but bruised clematis clouds.
I’ll keep looking.
Maybe I’ll find the real things.

The clematis unfolds bruised purple on the porch. Beneath the black and white hammers of ivory keys, old wounds crack open. A flight of feathered notes: this dead heart sacrificed on the lawn. I wash fresh stains from my fingers with the garden hose while the evening stretches out a shadow hand to squeeze my heart like an orange in its skin. Somewhere, the white throat sparrow trills its guillotine of vertical notes. I flap my hands in the air and they float like butterflies, amputated in sunlight’s net. The light fails fast. I hold up shorn stumps of flowers for the night wind to heal and a chickadee chants an afterlife built of spring branches.
Pressed between the pages of my dream: a lingering scent; the death of last year’s delphiniums; the tall tree toppled in the yard; a crab apple flower; a shard of grass as brittle as a bitter tongue at winter’s end. I know for sure that a dog fox hunts for my heart. Vicious as a vixen, the fox digs deep at midnight, unearthing the dried peas I shifted from bowl to bowl to measure time as I lay in bed. I sense a whimper at the window, the scratch of a paw. I watch a dead leaf settle down in a broken corner and it fills me with sudden silence.
Midnight stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps dream-treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone and my world is as small as a pea in a shrunken pod. Or is it a dried and blackened walnut in its wrinkled shell of overheating air? Sunset, last night, was a star-shell failing to fire. Swallows flew their evensong higher and higher, striving for that one last breath lapped from the dying lisp of day. Its last blush rode red on the clouds for no more than a second’s lustrous afterglow.
I lower the delphiniums, body after body, into their shallow graves. Night’s shadows weave illusions from earth’s old bones and rock becomes putty, malleable in the moonlight. Midnight readjusts her nocturnal robes and pulls bright stars from a top hat of darkness. Winged insects with human faces appear with the planets and clutter the owl’s path. Night swallows the swallows and creates more stars. The thin moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-cold blade.

Now that’s a clematis bruise!

Crazy Glue

The autumn leaves: what does it take with it when it goes? And what does it leave behind?

Crazy Glue

Late last night, a fallen star grazed by the lamp-post. A bouquet of golden sparks flew from an iron tree and sanctified the gutter. The gas lamps sputtered patiently in uniform rows. A scarecrow stuttered into the limelight and shook my hand. She was wearing my grandmother’s Easter bonnet, with all the flowers renewed, but she couldn’t keep my heart from last winter’s left over crumbs. Suddenly a tulip thrust through the concrete. It became as red as a robin and flew into the lounge bar of a public house. The bronze leaf necklace circling my throat filled with a flow of springtime song. My heart stood upright, a warped piano in my breast, and my skeleton tarried at the corner to play knuckle-bones with the wind. Torn butterflies of news fluttered round and round and kissed my eyelids when they closed. Yesterday’s horoscope winked its subversive eye and called to the hermit in his lonely cell: “Look out for the stranger with the tin can alley smile. Tie your heart to the tail of the first stray dog that comes whistling down the street and follow it home to the empty house that breathes in and out, moving thin membranes of memory.”
            That’s where I now live. Upstairs, downstairs, a lonely route I tread while the wind at the window scratches tiny notes. Something breaks loose in the confines of my mind and walks beside me. My twin brother stalks through this silvery sliver of splintered glass, this simian mirror wrinkling our troubled suits of skin. I glimpse the old moon’s monkey face through a broken window. Jagged and thin, it wanders like an itinerant snail, cobbled with clumsy clouds. Once, I descended the playground slide in a shower of sparks. A vagabond in a paving stone sky, I rumbled across metal cracks, a knapsack of nightmares humped on my old man’s back. Tell me: when the snail moves house, who stores the furniture he leaves behind? The hermit crab lurks naked on the beach, seeking new lodgings. Who killed the candle and left us in darkness?
            Two eyes in limbo watch me roll this snowman’s belly of flab across an unknown, clouded room where yesterday I got lost in the mirror. I know how to swim, but I would have drowned, except the light was too shallow and my feet touched bottom when I let the wheels down. I swam on and in looking for a deserted island on which to build my idle sand castle dreams. Two people said they saw my reflection swimming like a goldfish in the silver of that secret space. They said I stared back out at them with circles of longing ringing my eyes; but I laughed when they said they had seen me, for when I looked in the mirror this morning to shave, I just wasn’t there. My razor dragged itself over an empty space and its sharpened blade scraped white music from the margin of a cd rom that spun on edge like dust rings round a vanished planet. Now there is a black hole where my passport photo used to thrive. Someone plucked me from the circle and cut me out in the dance last night. Today I’m looking for a scrapbook in which to stick myself with crazy glue that never, never, ever comes undone.

Babs

Babs

It was March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Babs held the cat in her arms. The vet slipped the needle into the shunt he had inserted into the animal’s paw and the tiny wind of life gusted from the cat’s fragile body. The struggle ceased. The cat’s head settled and her tongue protruded, just a little, in that beloved and well-known gesture. It was all over.

Babs had found that lump, hard, but smaller than a pea, on New Year’s Day. The next day, she carried the cat to the vet where they took blood samples and ran tests. The vet’s assistant called later that afternoon. A lymphoma, she said, small but deadly. Steroids might help. They would give the cat a 40% chance at a life that would get more difficult, in spite of any known treatment. The alternative was to bring her back in and put her down now, that very afternoon. Babs looked at the cat: highlights strayed through her fur and her bright eyes sparkled like sunshine on a lake.

Throughout January the steroids went in and the cat glistened and grew fat. At first, Babs saw no sign of the lump but by Robbie Burn’s Day it was back. Babs started to count the days: January 31, February 2. The lump grew larger.

Three years before, on Valentine’s day, Babs had salvaged the cat from the SPCA where she languished, abandoned in a cage. The cat was a stray, half feral, taken in from the streets and subject to who knows what sort of treatment and feeding in its infancy. Babs wondered if it was in those days of neglect that the cancerous seed took root? Or did those seeds come later, when the cat wandered the garden and fed off the wild life, mice and voles, and drank from the streams that flowed through the killing fields with their fertilizers, their weed killers, their nutrients, and their poisons?

“What are we doing to ourselves,” Babs wondered as she sat at the kitchen table and sipped a cup of tea. “Was my cat the canary in my coalmine, doomed to warn me of what’s to come? Will my own system be invaded then poisoned with cancerous growths? Will I be subject to that stumbling, downward road that leads in the end to an inevitable death?”

She lay awake that night alone in the bed wondering in what ways cancer might ravage her body. How long would chemotherapy keep her alive? Who would be there for her, who would hold and comfort her, who would slip that releasing needle into her veins when her time came?

Babs ran her fingers over her body as she imagined herself sliding day by day down that slippery slope that leads to the grave. Then she caught her breath, her heart raced, and her blood turned to ice as her fingers tripped against the colony of killers: three small hard lumps that nested in her soft breast.

Boxing Day

A wonderfully quiet and peaceful Christmas in Canada. Oh the sea, oh the sea, thank God it still flows between my family and me.

Boxing Day
            By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war.
            Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round.
            I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too.
            “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us.
            “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door.
            I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.

Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.

Merry Christmas

A forgotten child’s Christmas in Wales.

On the Outside Looking In

As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a pretty Merry Christmas card, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the steep streets of Swansea into ice slides and traps for the elderly. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped in front of our neighbor’s house.
The window shone, a beacon in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against that window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt.
            When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my sketch book and began to draw, then color. When my mother came home, I showed her my picture.
            “Very nice,” she said without looking up.
            “But mum, you haven’t really seen it.”
            She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats before the fire, the candles burning on the mantelpiece, the decorations and the presents wrapped and waiting beneath the tree. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, cold and shivering, peering in through the window.

Comment: Everyone remembers Dylan Thomas’s story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but not all Welsh Christmases are like that. This is the story of a forgotten child’s Christmas in Wales. It is a story about a latch-key kid, left alone at Christmas to fend for himself. I enclose the drawing he did and I dedicate the story to anyone who is alone this Covid-19 Christmas. Christmas spent on your own is not much fun. Looking through another’s window, from the cold street outside, is not much fun either. So, at this time of year, let us remember those who are lost and lonely, those who need a kindly smile and a helping hand, those who do not have the comfort of family and friends, a warm wood fire, or a cat or a dog to snuggle up to them, to lick them, and to wish them ‘all the best’ in the languages that all animals speak on Christmas Eve, and sometimes into Christmas Day. Phone a friend, nod to a neighbor, and may your Christmas season be filled with joy.

Teddy and the Angels

Teddy and the Angels

Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face.
            “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow.
            “I am now.”
            “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.”
            Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment.
            “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again.
            “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.”
            “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.”
            “What time is it, Teddy?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.”
            “I’d much rather it was an angel.”
            “Me too.”
            “Can we pretend it’s an angel, a Christmas angel?”
            “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.”
            “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.”
            “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.”
            “Do you believe in angels?”
            “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.”
            “What’s a guardian angel?”
            “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.”
            “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.”
            “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.”
            “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.”
            “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.”
            “Okay. Blueberry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.”
            “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.”
            “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.”
            Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.

Building Bigger Boxes

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Building Bigger Boxes

Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a  phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.

So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.

Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts  escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?

It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a  case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.

My Father

The Jaguar Symbol of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment: A Golden Oldie that I had forgotten about. I found it among the drafts of earlier work. Monte Alban is also known as Dani Ba in the indigenous language of the region. Click on the link for more on Monte Alban. And click on this link for another piece on my father and Oaxaca. It’s a funny thing about Golden Oldies: sometimes they stick with us and are ‘unforgettable’, but sometimes they were better off left in the pile that gathers dust, like a forgotten book on a forgotten shelf. Speaking of which, have I told you about the time when …

Milton Acorn and the Jack Pine

Milton Acorn and the Jack Pine

            I met Milton Acorn in the photocopying room of the university in which I taught. I didn’t know who he was, but I soon found out.
            “Oy! You,” he waved his strong, carpenter’s hands, and stabbed me with a gnarled index finger.
            “Are you Milton Acorn,” I asked. “The poet?”
            “Yup. Make this machine work.”
            “I’m meant to be taking you to lunch.”
            “Got this job to do first,” he pointed at the machine. “Turn it on.”
            I typed in my code and the copier leapt into life.
            “Now go away. I need to be alone.”

            A few minutes later, I returned to find him lying on the photocopier, eyes shut, face pressed against the glass. Lights flashed, the copier whirred, and a copy of his face emerged. He descended from the machine and added his face to the pile of photocopies that lay at his feet.
            “Tape,” he said. “I need tape,” he again stabbed me with his finger and held out his hand.
            “I’ll go and get some.”
            I went to my secretary’s office.
            “What the heck is he doing in there?” she asked.
            “I haven’t got a clue. But now he wants some Scotch tape,” I held out my hand and she handed me a roll of tape “Thanks,” I said.

            I gave Milton the tape and watched as he taped the copies together. He had photocopied his whole body, arms, legs, back sides, feet.
            “Me,” he said happily. “That’s me,”
            Triumphant, he showed me his work: a self-portrait, shadowy and cloudy, still warm, with him all whiskered and worn, smelling still of photocopying ink, unique, unmistakable, uncouth, unseemly, but the real Milton Acorn, a jack pine sonnet self-grown in his own poetic image.

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time …

            Once upon a time, there was a man who carried a large round rock upon his back. It was huge and heavy, like the globe that Atlas carried. One day he felt tired, laid that rock upon the beach at Bocabec, waded out into the Bay of Passamaquoddy, and was never seen again. He left the rock there for my friend to find. My friend called it Magic Rock, but what he did with it and thought about it is his tale to tell, not mine. I must tell another story.
            Once upon a time, St. Patrick arrived in Ireland. He celebrated Easter on the hill above Tara, the royal palace of the ancient Irish kings. Then he walked down the hill to their palace and tried to convert them to Christianity. But that is another story, and it is not mine to tell, even though the name of Tara was given to the red and white house of another friend of mine, red and white, like the dogs and cattle of Ireland. But that’s not my story.
            Once upon a time, a rich and powerful man came to St Andrews and built a summer home on the hill above the bay. Later, another friend of mine purchased it, painted it red and white, and turned it into a wonderful home for guests and visitors. I wanted to tell her story, but it’s hers to tell, not mine. I can only tell my own story.
            Once upon a time, my friend who lives on the shore at Holt’s Point, walked on the beach outside his house and found an enormous, metal ball, weighing almost two hundred kilos. It was almost as big as Magic Rock. It lay there, on the shore waiting for some one to find it. My friend went home, drove back to the beach in his truck, winched the ball onto the flatbed, and brought it home. What he did with it is not my tale to tell. I must tell my own story.
            So, what is my story? What tales do I have the right to tell and how shall I begin my tale? Well, once upon a time, in Ty Coch, a red brick house on the Gower Peninsula, in Wales, a little boy was born … and that is my story … but I will not tell it here and now.  Instead, I’ll tell you another tale. But you will have to wait until tomorrow.