A strange, milk-cloud sky, skimpy, with the sun a pale, dimly-glowing disc and my pen scarce casting a shadow as the nib limps over the page.
Out on the west coast, fires still range free and this is the result, these high, thin clouds casting a spider web cloak over the sun face and darkening the day.
The west coast: five or six hours by plane and three whole days to get there by train, even longer by bus, all chop and change with multiple stops.
The wind blew and the clouds came widdershins, backwards across the continent. Today they reached across the ocean to claw the sun from European skies.
It is indeed a small world after all. Isostasy: you push the earth balloon in here, and it bulges out over there in the place you least expected.
Now we are all interconnected in an intricate network of a thousand ways and means. What does it all mean? Ripples ruffle the beaver pond’s dark mirror.
The forest mutters wind-words, devious and cruel, that I sense, but cannot understand. High in the sky clouds turn into horsemen on plunging steeds.
Fear, fire, flood, foe, poverty, unemployment, pandemic, crops destroyed and, waiting in the wings, threats of civil unrest, the apocalypse, and a war to end all wars.
Comment: A week in bed, unable to sit, to write, to use the computer, except standing on one leg and typing with one finger. Unable to concentrate, to create, and now, after four visits to my medical team, acupuncture, manipulation, massage, finally that pinched nerve has stopped pinching and I can get back to writing. However, my thoughts are as grey as these clouds that dim the skies. I no longer know who or what or where I am. The world around me has turned sinister and I suffer.
The result: black thoughts, black poetry, red, flaming skies, and the knowledge that all is not well, neither with me, nor with our sick little planet. There is no Planet B and this one, like me, is suffering.
Premonitions and dark thoughts. I lie awake in bed each night, sleepless, hugging my Teddy Bear and my hot water bottle, aching, suffering, waiting for the dawn.
“Contemplate this crucifixion. Each of your sins is a thorn driven into His brow.
Each misdemeanor spears the sacred side, draws water and blood from the open wound.
Your sinful deeds drive nails anew into hand and foot.
Christ lives in you. Your misdeeds nail him daily to the cross He bears for you.
He hangs there, open-eyed.
No death, no resurrection, just an everlasting suffering from these nails you daily drive.”
Comment: This poem is a very golden oldie. I wrote it in 1979 while walking the Camino de Santiago / the Road to St. James. I should add that this was long before it became fashionable to do so. I walked alone and, save for my thoughts, I was indeed very lonely. In fact, the long days walking, the solitude, got to me. I needed to talk, to meet people, and so, after long discussions with sundry people along the route, I determined to take the bus or the train to the main pilgrimage centres and to walk out from them in either direction. This allowed me to meet people, explore the towns with their churches, traditions, and museums, and to learn much more about the nature and art traditionally associated with the pilgrimage. In this fashion, I spent five days in Leon, two days in Hospital de Orbigo, a week in Astorga, another week in Ponferrada, and nearly two weeks in Santiago itself.
I wrote a collection of poems while I was studying the cities and the landscape. This particular poem is a summary of the conversation I had with the old priest, determined to convert me to Catholicism, who introduced me to the Cristo de Carrizo, in Leon.
In 1613, Francisco de Quevedo, the Spanish poet on whom I wrote my doctoral thesis (Toronto, 1975) wrote a collection of heartfelt mea maxima culpa poems dedicated to his aunt. It bore the title of ElHeráclito Cristiano / The Christian Heraclitus. This in turn was based on an earlier cycle of poems, Lamentaciones de Semana Santa / Lamentations of Holy Week (1601), which Quevedo appears to have written following the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
These spiritual exercises consist of a set of contemplations based on the Stations of the Cross, Via Crucis, in which the contemplator meditates on each of the moments of Christ’s torment and suffering leading up to his death by crucifixion at the end of Holy Week. The purpose of the exercises is to try and recreate in the mind of the contemplator the sufferings of Christ, to imagine his pain, and to feel his suffering at a personal level. This is an act not only of contemplation and contrition, but also of purification of mind and spirit.
This year, during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection), I attempted to follow in the footsteps of Quevedo and to contemplate the current world situation and my own specific situation, as influenced by the lock down in New Brunswick instigated on account of the Corona Virus pandemic.
Lamentations for Holy Week, then, is my attempt to examine myself and my own conscience at a time of great personal stress, a stress that I share with all those who are infirm, frail, in ill health, alone, and getting on in years. These are the people most affected by loneliness and the threat of the pandemic to our lives.
The Cristo de Carrizo is a hand-carved ivory cross, Mozarabic in origin. It shows Christ, on the cross, with his eyes open, looking at the viewer. Christ is not dead, in this crucifixion, but very much alive, and suffering. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Codes and Coding Where’s Home? (4) A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.
“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.
Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.
The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.
But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo–Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b, c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.
This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.
When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.
It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.
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.
Where’s Home (2) Part II of an open letter to Jan Hull
I ended yesterday’s letter with the words “There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day.” This is the day, and the brighter side is the sacredness of place. The Celtic Nations believe strongly in the sacredness of place. In the old religions we believed that places held spirits who dwelt in the rivers and streams, who lived in the trees and the orchards, who were a large part of the spirit of place and sacred space. You can still read some of this innate pantheism in The Chronicles of Narnia. Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French … we all have Celtic roots and, like the First Nations of Canada, we still believe in the sanctity of the land. This is an old tradition and a worthy one. Not all great ideas were born in Western Culture post the Industrial Revolution. Many pre-date our so called modern culture. Some should replace it.
I believe very strongly in the power of place. Sometimes, turning a corner one day, we know we are home. This is the feeling that comes so strongly through the second chapter of your book, Jan. Yes, the Maritimes (NB, NS, and PEI) are home for many people. It is indeed their One Small Corner. their querencia. What is a querencia, you ask? Well, it is the place that calls you, the place in which you want to live, the place in which you want to die. And yes, in this time of pandemic, death is on all our minds: those twin realities, sickness and death. Neither is easy. These times are not easy. But they become easier for those of us rooted in our time and our place and, like it or not, the human being, male, female, or other, must live in a dialog with their own time and place. This is the chrono- (time) -topos (place) of the Russian Philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin.
Life is so much easier when we are in our own beloved space. When we are out of it, away from home, down the road, that is when we suffer most, Sometimes we are still able to flourish. Oftentimes, we wither and perish, like leaves on the tree. You, in your book, Where’s Home?, have offered us a glimpse of what that one small corner, the province of Nova Scotia, means to your correspondents and the ones with whom you have held dialog. We are all of us richer for that experience. Thank you, Jan, and on all our behalves, mine particularly, please thank your contributors.
Right from the address on the envelope where you gifted me a knighthood, calling me Sir Roger, I was captivated by this package.
I opened it at the Beaver Pond in Mactaquac and started to read as Clare did her daily walk, widdershins round the pond. Alas, I missed the great blue heron flying. Ditto, the osprey and the kingfisher. I heard all about them later.
Only you, Jan, only you. You are truly unique. Your words jump off the page, lean across the table to me, and offer me bread and wine. I do hope that this book is the first of many. Your words brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart.
So many themes that touched me deeply. The loss of language and culture: in this case, French and Gaelic, in my own case Welsh, a forbidden language when I was growing up. It is only now, at an advanced age, that I have started to learn it. What memories it brings back.
The sending of indigenous children to residential schools: in my own case, starting at age six, I was sent away to a series of boarding schools and never escaped until I was 18 years old. Good-bye family and culture: hello loneliness and solitude.
The enforcement of religion, top down, with the vicious punishments that accompanied doubt, unbelief, or non-acceptance. The brutal separation from family, with the whole experience of reintegration into a now-become-foreign world, relocation, loss of roots and culture, the difficulties of not belonging to the new communities.
There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day. Meanwhile, congratulations on this book, Jan. May it be the first of many and a delight and revelation to all.
There I was, in dreamland, half-asleep, leaning on my cart, when this phantom drifted towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.”
I woke up from my dream, looked at the ghost, tall, skeletal, thin, cavernous eyes, cheekbones protruding, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn.
“Sorry!” My reply was automatic. I looked at him again. “I only carry plastic.” The excuse limped heavily across the air between us.
I saw something in his eyes, I knew not what. As I walked away, I added one hundred pound of muscle to his frame. He had played hard.
I remembered him holding up the Maritime Cup. But I couldn’t remember his name. I pushed my cart all over the store searching for him.
At the ATM I withdrew cash I could give him. I would tell him he had dropped it. I could invite him to the snack bar, buy him a meal and more.
I could tell him to buy what he needed and meet me at the check out. I could add his purchases to my bill. I looked everywhere. Nor sight, nor sign.
One opportunity. That’s all we get. Miss it, blow the match. Grasp it, hold it tight, we’re champions.
Comment: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Or my sister’s?” Here and now we are living with realities that we have rarely faced before. Not everyone has kept their jobs. Some are indeed living out on the streets, helpless, homeless, panhandling, hoping. Right now they are lucky. Sunny, warm, hot … though sometimes too hot. At least it isn’t 40 below and freezing their butts off. So what do we do? Turn a blind eye? Say we are sorry? Suddenly recognize an old friend, turn quickly away before he recognizes us, and burn ever afterwards with shame?
I cannot answer for you. I can only answer for myself. I am ashamed of my slick answers, my throwaway negatives, my disguised barbs. “Go get a job.” There are no jobs, or very few anyway, Covid-19 has seen to that. “Do something useful, can’t you?” There’s very little they can do, and seemingly there’s very little can be done for them. “Go home!” They have no homes to go to.
So what are the alternatives? Love? Charity? Comprehension? Embracing their situation? Understanding? How can we understand, you and I, who sit before the computer screen, the cell phone, or the I Pad, scanning this in comfort? Think about it: there, out into the street, but for some good luck, and the grace of God, go you and I. Think about it. Now do you understand?