On Life and Living

On Life and Living

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Oscar Wilde

To live, to really live, what does it mean? I guess that depends on each one of us, our backgrounds, our education, our culture. W. H. Davies wrote one of my favourite poems “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” To know how to live is also to know how to stand and stare, how to make time for oneself, how to take joy in the simple things.

But what if the simple things are no longer accessible or ‘within easy reach’ as my poet friend, Jane Tims, would phrase it? When the cost of living rises, when we cannot afford to heat our homes, when we have to choose between eating or heating, or between food and medicine, can we truly be said to be living? Then, like it or not, existence, in the words of Sartre, precedes essence, and the very act of existing, surviving, maintaining body and soul together, takes over from any thoughts that may strike us, any time we may have to stand and stare.

Do the little things in life, said St. David of Wales, Dewi Sant. But what happens when so many of these little things are taken away from us? Some of us are lucky, privileged, blessed – and we are able to heat the house, run the car, meet a sudden unexpected bill. We do not have to choose between heat or eat, between food or medicine. Others are not so fortunate. They may have lost their homes. They may not have a car, or they may be living in it. Their transport may be a metal trolley, ‘borrowed from a shopping mall before it was lost’. Their only unexpected bill may be the Old Bill, coming to arrest them for loitering, with or without intent. For these people, on a daily basis, an hourly, basis, life’s hard choices are upon them. They are faced every day with a very different choice in answer to Hamlet’s question – ‘to be or not to be?’.

I see them, the people making those choices, sitting on the sidewalk outside the super-market, plastic coffee cups before them. Heads down, eyes closed, scarcely able to look me in the eye. I see them at the traffic lights, holding up their cardboard signs. I look at them as they sit there or stand there or walk up and down, sitting, standing, staring at the traffic.

They also give a new meaning to the last couplet of W. H. Davies’ poem – “A sad life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” They have the time to sit, and stand, and pace, and stare – indeed they do – but do they live, or do they just exist? And for how long? These are the real questions.

Boxing Day

They’re not Boxing Gloves – but they could be. Photo by my friend Geoff Slater.

Boxing Day


            By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear angry, raised voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thickening atmosphere.
            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 above the wooden duck-boards that line the floor on the far side of the room and keep the enemies’ feet clear of mud and water.

A Month Ago

A Month Ago

A month ago, on November 23, I posted my last message on this blog. Since then, nothing. Silence.

For thirty days and thirty nights the world has been as silent as the painting I posted above. It has been as silent as snow flakes circling. As quiet as the ribbons tied silently together. Nothing stirred. Nothing moved. Nothing.

Can an absence be a presence? Sometimes it is, for example, when we lose a tooth, a family member, or a friend. In their absence, we lament the loss of their presence. With a tooth, we run the tongue around the empty space, noticing the tenderness of the flesh, the hollow within the gum.

It’s the same with friends. They go AWOL. Move on. Forget their promises of eternal friendship. They become the empty space where the tooth once stood. At first we grieve. Then we become used to their absence. Then, one day, we realize that their voices have fallen silent and then they are friends no more.

Right now, there is a hollow in my life. An absence. I cannot put my finger on what is missing, absent, as always, without leave. Maybe it is the Christmas beliefs that dogged my childhood. Maybe it is the emptiness that warns of oncoming storms, each one greater than the one before. Maybe it is just the premonition, the suspicion, that all is not well with the world.

This year we gave more money than ever before to the Feed a Family Fund. Then we sent extra money to the local foodbank. Everywhere we see that the social ball of string is unwinding and ends no longer meet. It seems our society no longer has the will or the means to justify any ends, except selfish ones. Is it everyone for themselves, then, and the devil take the hindmost? Sometimes it feels like it.

I have seen the hindmost, human beings they are, just like you and me, except they are wrapped in blankets, begging at traffic lights, sitting outside the supermarket, a coffee cup at their feet, hoping for a penny to drop. Where have all the pennies gone? Gone to the smelters everyone. So they wait for a nickel to drop, or a dime, or even a quarter.

Covid-19 and all its subsequent derivations may well have been at the heart of all this. The isolation. The masking. The distancing. The fear of the unknown. The fear of the stranger in our midst. We have become used to living with those fears. We still have Covid-19 and its variations, some with long term complications. We now have a virulent flu as well. And there are various viral infections circulating.

The Apocalypse? Not yet. The Apocalypse has four horsemen and I have only mentioned three. So – where is the fourth one hiding? When will he appear? What will he look like? Maybe he’s lurking in a food bank, an unrepentant Grinch preparing to steal the food? Perhaps he hides in an unheated house? Can he be spotted at the dinner table, where the parent or parents are not eating, so that a child may eat?

I throw these questions out. Outside my window, clouds gather and snow starts to fall. I listen carefully. But all I can hear is the silence to which I have grown accustomed.

Silence

Silence

Words emerge from the silence
of wood and stone. They break
that silence when they are born.

Silence, once broken, cannot
be repaired. A word once spoken
cannot be recalled.

The greatest gift is to know
how to be alone amidst the crowd,
how to sink into silence.

A world of words smothered
at birth and that world, unborn,
dismissed, forgotten, still-born.

A lost world of words whirled
on the silent wind that fans
the unborn fire within you.

The spider web of the mind
blown clear by the wind
that blows unspoken words.

The sultry silence of wood and stone,
the hush of the tadpole swimming
into its own metamorphosis.

Click for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Silence

Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead

writing by candlelight
the flickering flame
casting shadows
over thought and word

tell me what are shadows
but the false promises
festering in Plato’s Cave
or a fake finger show
projected on an unwilling wall

yellow and red the flames
sweet scented the smoke rising
from melting wax
my mind alive with memories

this night of nights
when family ghosts
drift through the room
and my childhood clutches
the red bag of my heart
with death’s cold fingers

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor
Day of the Dead



Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors

You walk up the wooden stairs
and there you are, staring at yourself
in the fairground’s distorting mirrors.

Fatter, thinner, shorter, taller, a half-
and-half version, thinner at the top,
squat at the bottom, one of those Xmas
dolls you could flick, but never roll over.

What do we see when we look in the mirror?
Do we see our selves as we really are
or do we see the wretched deformations
of our diminishment?

So depressing to think that, back then,
I might have seen myself as I am now:
hair thinning, forehead larger,
shriveled shanks and wasted muscles,
breathless, when I climb the stairs,
and a butterfly heart that sometimes
flutters and stutters as it seeks the sun.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Hall of Mirrors

The Path Taken

The Path Taken

I followed a path and found my way,
but evening shadows led me astray
far from the uplands and the sun
to a land where darker waters run.

Where now, I ask, the summer beach,
salt water, cool, within easy reach?
I no longer hear the sea-gull’s cry,
white-wings lofting him to the sky.

I tread winter’s path of ice and snow
bent branches forcing me to stoop low,
a horse-shoe hare running out ahead,
behind, a white wolf fills me with dread.

My feet are cold, my steps are slow,
my muscles ache, my blood won’t flow.
Head spins, lungs throb and clutch at air,
my  heart fills up with dark despair.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
The Path Taken

Loss

Loss

By the time I remembered your name
I had forgotten your face,
and then I couldn’t recall
why I wanted to talk to you
in the first place.

Words and phrases bounce,
water off a duck’s back.
They sparkle like a high tide
rejected by the retriever
as he shakes his coat dry
on emerging from the sea.

This book I read is a word parcel,
a clepsydra of droplets,
a rainbow strung with colored beads,
each scouring a bull’s eye
on the world’s taut literary hide.

Mapa mundi of forgotten lands,
I trace dark landmarks
on the back of scarred hands
and wonder why I have never visited
faraway places with strange-sounding names.

Tourist guide to a failing memory,
I track the trails of drifting ships
as their white sails vanish,
blank butterflies from a distant summer,
floating over a darkening horizon.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Loss

A Grouse

A Grouse

It hurts. She is so far away.
I can barely hear her voice on the phone.
It hurts. I can only comfort her with words,
useless words, clichés that will never
take her cares away, how could they?

Ghosts of a nearby past drift silently by.
I wonder what can say to each other,
whether we should chat about the weather,
or whether to let silence hold sway.
I don’t want her to put down the phone
even though we’ll talk again today.

My body hurts with her hurt. I know my pain
will soon go away, but hers – I hope it doesn’t stay.
Outside the window, two red squirrels play.
Words break the silence: I’ll call
you later. Make the most of your day.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Grouse.





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The Cry

The Cry

I had forgotten the who,
what, when, where, and why.
A t first, I didn’t hear the cry,
despondent, squeaky, like a mouse,
timid until it climbed up higher,
inspired by the grief within.

My own heart, paper thin,
could not confine the sobbing
that assaulted my own stronghold,
the oubliette, where everything
lay hidden, but never forgotten.

A pebble on the pond, the cry
rippled onwards and out,
became a whimper, grew into a shout.
What’s it all about, I asked
and took the cry to task
for rippling my pond’s tranquility.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
The Cry