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.

Lost

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Lost

My body’s house has many rooms and you, my love,
walk through them all. Your shadow dances on walls,
in mirrors, and your breath brushes my cheek

every time I open doors or windows. That silly cat
looks for you and hisses when I bring her kibble.
I move from room to room, but when I seek you,

you are no longer here. I knock, nothing opens.
Afraid, sometimes, to enter a room, I know
you are in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.

Sometimes your voice seems to break the silence.
You whisper my name in the same old way.
How can it be true, my love, that you have gone,

that you have left me here alone? I count the hours,
the days, embracing dust motes. I find no solace
in salacious sunbeams and my occasional dreams.

Comment: Regular visitors to this blog will probably recognize this poem. It is a rewrite of an earlier one, also bearing the title Lost (click here for earlier post). I rewrote, or rather, reorganized the structure of the poem, added some words, and subtracted others. I did this earlier this summer while Clare was in Ottawa visiting our daughter and grand-daughter. And yes, I missed her. I always do when she in not present or I am away. Comments on either version will be welcome, particularly if you prefer one version over the other.

Welsh Miners

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Miners

What has become of the caged
canary who lit up my life?
I hear the pit pines creaking.
Now nobody dares strike a match.

Birds descending in an iron cage,
our lungs blackened and scarred,
scared, we sing dark hymns
knowing we are doomed.

On hands and knees, we crawl
to the coal-black altars of our gods.
Blind from birth, pit ponies
trust us in their solitudes.

Don’t they know that when
the canary falls from its perch,
we’ll abandon them and claw
our way, anywhere, to safety?

Within the chalk tomb-tunnels
of my calcined skull,
a lone thought searches
an abandoned mine for a memory
it can no longer find.

Book Burning

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Book Burning

A sharp-edged double sword,
this down-sizing,
this clearing out of odds and ends.

Library shelves emptying.
books disappearing, one by one.

So many memories
trapped between each page,
covers, dust-bound now,
dust to dust and books to ashes.

Sorrowful, not sweet, each parting,
multiple losses, characters
never to be met again,
except in dreams.

Heroes, thinkers, philosophers, poets,
their life work condemned to conflagration.

Alpha: such love at their beginnings.
Omega: such despair,
with Guy Fawkes celebrations
the means to their ends.

Word-fires:
the means of forging
those book worlds that surrounded us.

Bonfires:
the means to end them.

Steadfast, the book-fires,
flames fast devouring

all but an occasional volume
snatched, burnt fingers,
from the flames.

Fire Storm

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Fire Storm

Yesterday, it was difficult to breathe.
We inhaled dust and ashes as smoke
from forest fires scuttled towards us,
carried piggy-back on a strong west wind.

Today, the wind herds clouds into aerial castles,
pinnacles and pyramids piled upwards,
tall ships’ canvases painted dark, thundery,
raised by fierce wedges thrust beneath them,
lofting them into darkening skies.

Beyond a certain height, water becomes ice.
Particles group together. Hail stones form,
small at first, growing ever larger
until the very air can no longer bear
their weight. Golf ball big,  they tumble down
the sky’s steep ladder and fall to earth.

The dry drum roll of distant thunder rumbles.
A scissor-slash of light shreds black skies.
An executioner’s hay wain rolls towards us,
a runaway train destined to tear our lives
apart. It leaves us helpless, clamoring for safety,
our world torn apart, our earth sore wounded.

Death scythes away downing rich and poor alike.
Who now knows which way thrown dice will fall?
The dye’s sharp edge, once cast, cuts like a blade.
Hailstones clatter, battering us down.

 

Tigger’s Return

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Tigger’s Return
aka
Recrossing the Rainbow Bridge

I opened the car door. He ran across the parking lot,
jumped into the back seat. “Where have you been?” I asked.
He thumped his great tail, sniffed, and licked the hand I held out.

We drove back home with his head thrust between the seats,
his paw on my shoulder as he licked my ear and my face.
I pulled into the garage and let him out of the car.

He raced to the road, surveyed the neighborhood,
and drilled an invisible hole into the snow. I whistled.
He ran to the door, whimpering impatiently.

I opened it and he bounded in. “You’re home now,” I said.
He ran to the cat’s bowl, lapped some water, scoffed her kibble,
and curled up under the table in his usual place.

At night, he lies beside me, a fluffy spoon carved into
my body’s curve. Each morning he walks through the kitchen
and doesn’t make a sound. The cat bristles and hisses.

He’s sitting beside me now, head on my knee, as I type.
I haven’t told anyone that he’s back. They’d think I was mad.
It’s good to have him here even when nobody else can see him.