One of my first cartoons. It always reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis: “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.” What fun it was to paint and what a joy to rediscover it. I guess that’s the name of the game for a little while: rediscovery. Dig down into the dirt and the memoirs and the flashbacks and reproduce what’s in there. It reminds me too of the conjunction of Mars and Venus, a couple of years back. I would look out of the window, to the southern sky, and there they were, drawing closer together until, suddenly, one night, there they were. “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.”
I have never been able to draw or paint with any skill. Then, one day, I read Matisse and his commentaries on his own work: “Making meaning out of colour and shape.” So, there you are. I don’t know what it means, but, as Salvador Dali said “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” And the moment means something: staying in the moment of creativity creates great joy. That joy, the joy in joie de vivre, is there to be rediscovered. So: share the joy. Laugh at the innocence. And, following Picasso, “paint the world as a child might see it.”
Those that have been chosen to survive have walked indoors, Now they are safe behind glass, in the warm, low sunshine that floods the rooms. We watch the sun’s fingers starting to reach into the deepest corners and know that winter is on its way.
Thanksgiving has come and gone yet we still give thanks: indoor flowers to brighten the dark days, flu shots tomorrow, blood tests on Friday. I guess it’s a case of ‘last man standing’!
Orion confirms this. He has risen in the night sky and now accompanies me on my journey through the dark hours, sword at belt, faithful dog at heel. Yes. Winter is on its way. Warmer clothing. Thicker jerseys. Non-slip shoes. Oh the joys of Canada.
Remember: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. Locked out of the university, walking the picket lines at -35C, we learned the facts of outdoor winter life only too well. So, dress warmly. Keep safe. Keep your distance. Wear those masks. Did out your snow tires. Tune up the snow blower.
And may you always wake with the flowers in the house.
“The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad,” Salvador Dali. It is a great honor to borrow his words and to be able to make the same declaration: the only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.
Mikhail Bakhtin: carnival, the world turned upside down, the world going bananas and those bananas dancing, as you can see in the painting above. It is a mad moment frozen in the still time of paint. And why shouldn’t bananas dance? Some one out there will remember Thunder Bay, 1981: ‘you just have to go bananas’ and the bananas duly appeared at half time instead of the oranges. Saint John, 1985: same thing.
And now the dancing bananas have emerged once more to fill your minds with pleasure and your hearts with joy. Go, bananas, go. Bananas-a-go-go. Way to go, bananas. And I tell you, given the current state of society, going bananas is the only way to go. So, in the next election, I shall form the Banana Party and we can all stand firmly, shoulder to shoulder and shout “Oh, Mighty Banana!” and “Go, Bananas!”
Ah yes, and my next painting? Maybe it will be Banana Custard or Banana Splits, not that I have ever done the splits!
One of my good friends always greets me with the following phrase: “Still on the green side of the grass, then”. So, here’s my painting: Stay on the Green Side. Much better than the other side, from all that I am told by my more down-to-earth companions. I will not intrude upon the thoughts of some of my other friends, nor expose their beliefs. I’ll paint for them another day.
So, while you can, and while you may, Stay on the Green Side, my friends. Wake up each morning, smell the coffee, and gather ye rosebuds while ye may!
Sometimes the road seems uphill all the way. Lungs burn. Breath comes hot and hard and chunky in the throat. Legs hang heavy, muscles will not obey the owner’s instructions.
Consult the operating manual: “Take a break,” it says. “Rest now. Don’t push too hard.” But to rest is to give in, to come to an abrupt halt, or to drift backwards down the hill.
What stubborn streak is painted so deep in us that it shouts ‘never surrender’ when our most urgent need seems to be to throw in the towel? Is it the urge to get to the top, to see the lower lands stretched out below us? Or is it the mantra of fight the good fight?
Many things can drive us on: a need, a desire, a whim, an urge, or merely a refusal to stop fighting. Some of us will never give up. We will never lie down and curl up in a corner, a dead leaf to be blown hither and thither by the cold night wind.
Look carefully: there are no drugs, no needles, in the biker’s uniform. There is no small accessory motor hidden in the back wheel to help when times get hard.
The mouth is open, the eyes are set on the target, the legs still move, the sun still shines, and three smiling heart-shaped faces cheer the cyclist on.
Who can they be, these three angels at the road side, who can they be? Yet they are there and we are here and the bike is there and the hill is there and sometimes … yes, sometimes, the road IS uphill all the way.
But we keep the pedals turning and we don’t get off our bikes … and that’s life.
He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.
A cerebral bleed, minor, but enough to send him to hospital and keep him there.
Cured, ready for release, he would need extra care and added attention.
The devil lived in the small print. Too much attention needed now: his care home wouldn’t care for him.
Back to the old folks ward he went. There he lay, waiting for a vacancy in a home that would really care.
One day, Covid came a-visiting, stalked the ward that night, choosing its victims: you, you, and her, and him.
What killed him? A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke? Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?
Bold words, bare words, a barren ward, another vacant place around a Christmas table.
Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.
Where’s Home (3) Part III of an open letter to Jan Hull
The Little Things
In 1898, Spain fought and lost a war with America over possession of Cuba. Cuba was the last of Spain’s overseas Empire and when it went, the all conquering fatherland, upon whose empire the sun never set, was reduced to its original territory in the Spanish Peninsula. That same year, the literary Generation of 1898 started a new movement, one that made Spain itself central to its imagery and thought. Theirs was not the Spain of Imperial History, with its wars and treaties, battles and conquests. Theirs was the eternal countryside of Spain, the Spain of Old Castille that was rooted to the soil, and that had remained virtually unchanged in the small towns, fishing ports, and villages, for hundreds of years. This was the Spain of Miguel de Unamuno’s Intra-historia: the history of small things.
St. David, Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales, a historical figure flourishing circa 600 CE, is famous within Wales for his many sayings. But for me, one stands out. “Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd, a gwnewch y petheu bychainmewn bwywd” / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed and do the little things in life. In these times of stress and strain, faced by enormous changes brought about by the pandemic, to these prophetic words I turn.
Poets, creators, artists, stoneists, craft-workers of all kinds … we are the antennae of the people. We sense the directions in which life flows and will flow and we are ahead of our times, not behind them. We are the ones who ‘do the little things’, often abandoning larger, more financially rewarding projects in favor of smaller ones that spiritually enrich both us and the people around us. And that is what I am now reading in Jan Hull’s Where’s Home? People, real, live, flesh-and-blood people, many of them artists at heart, abandoning the big city’s rush and rock and roll to enjoy the quietude of small communities which they help to build with their own hands.
Troglodytes, cavemen, people living in the past, I have heard ‘so-called saner citizens’ mutter about some of our contemporary artists. They live off hand-outs and charity and welfare, and they live in the past. Grey-suited, working in concrete boxes, these well-heeled critics are all made out of ticky-tacky, as the old song says, and they work in little boxes, and they come out all the same. Fine fr some, but you certainly cannot say that of the characters who inhabit the small towns, villages, and ports, as Where’s Home? demonstrates so clearly, with quote after quote from contented people, all resident in Nova Scotia, some CFA (Come From Away), others CBC (Come By Choice), and yet others native to the province.
Living in the past … when Hurricane Arthur struck, we went without power for twelve days. No water, no warm food, no cooking, no refrigeration, no flush toilets, no showers, no air conditioning, no television, no Wifi, no internet … In 1928, my grandfather and my father built a summer home, a bungalow, in Gower. I remember, even in the late fifties, living there during the summer with my grandparents: wood stove, rain water barrels, no running water, outhouse, no electricity, no refrigeration, oil lamps … Hurricane Arthur … and Clare and I went back to bungalow living. Several of our neighbors did not know how to cope with the ‘problems’. A couple moved into hotels or stayed with family elsewhere until the crisis was over. As for us, this was the life I was used to as a child. We went into bungalow mode and had more fun than anyone could imagine… living in the past? … or preparing for the future? … Think about it, and don’t jump too quickly to the wrong conclusion.
Above all, Jan Hull’s book, Where’s Home?, has made me think. It has made me think deeply about my own life, my own memories, my own restless, rootless existence, my own attempts to settle and resettle. More, in light of the pandemic with so many working from home, so much home schooling, and so much online back and forth, maybe we, the artists, the returnees, the WAH (Work At Homers), maybe we are not stranded, forgotten, on the back-burners of modern life. Maybe, just maybe, we are the fore-tellers, the front-runners, the pioneers of how a better, more meaningful existence may be created and kept. Thank you, Jan, and please thank all your contributors on my behalf.