On The Outside Looking In

 

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Billy was walking home on his own. As usual. The church party was awful. As usual. Lots of trumped up noise and artificial gaiety.

The priest had made the boys sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. Then he put a bar of chocolate in the middle of the circle. He walked around the group and whispered the name of an animal secretly, he loved secrets, to each one.  Then he explained the game to them.

“I cannot remember what animal name I bequeathed to each boy,” he said, staring at them, his eyes golden, like a fierce eagle’s, beneath bushy black eye-brows. “I will say the name of an animal until one of you, whoever it happens to be, hears his own secret animal name. When you hear that secret name, you must grab the chocolate bar before anyone else can get it. Understood?”

The boys all nodded and the mums and dads who had brought them to the party smiled in anticipation.

“Are you ready?” He watched the boys as they nodded and shouted “Alligator!”

Nobody moved.

“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.

“Tiger!” A sigh from the boys, some of whom were already licking their lips.

“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. I didn’t give the name lion to anyone.”

“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.

“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”

“Yes father …”

“Monkey!” All the boys moved as one. Some crawled, some dived, some leaped to their feet and ran. A surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long awaited fights ensued.

All the boys moved, except one. Billy just sat there.

“I said ‘Monkey’, Billy,” the priest frowned at the boy.

Billy nodded.

“When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”

Billy nodded again.

“Go now and have some fun. Join in the game.”

Billy shook his head.

“Why not, Billy?”

“It’s a stupid game. I won’t play it. I want to go home.” Billy stood up and walked out of the church. He turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at him while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.

As Billy walked, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets. Billy turned up the collar of his coat and, bowing his head, stuffed his hands into his pockets. He turned the corner onto the last street before his own and stopped.

A house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. He drew closer, pressed his nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, Billy’s heart warmed up. Then he thought of his own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. A snowflake settled on Billy’s heart and refused to melt.

When he got home, the house stood cold and empty. His parents were at work and the fire had gone out. Nothing was ready for Christmas. Billy sat at the table, took out his colouring book and began to draw the cartoon you see at the top of this page.

When his mother came home, he showed her his drawing.

“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.

“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”

Billy’s mother stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside in the snow,  peering in through the window.

 

 

 

Buzz Words

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Beware of Buzz words. Beware too of the perils of what Bobby McDonagh, in the article linked below, calls the thought incinerator. A thought incinerator is a word or phrase that can be repeated again and again to destroy thought and argument. McDonagh’s article illustrates the use of thought incinerators in politics. Being more apolitical than political, I am interested not in politics, but in the linguistic argument that involves the erosion of language and meaning and the destruction, with chanted, thoughtless choruses, of logical discourse and analysis.

Lock her up, the people have spoken, build that wall, drain the swampfake news, all fall into the category of thought incinerators, precisely because they can be repeated endlessly with no need to present logical arguments to support their continued usage. While these mindless chants can be attributed to one side of the political divide in the USA, more similar phrases can be found in the article below touching on the current political situation in the [Dis-] United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. some examples follow: the elite, project fear, Brussels bureaucrats, Brussels bullying, Brussels blackmail, the EU wants to punish Britain, whatever did Europe do for us, not to mention the notorious red bus and its far-reaching message “350 million quid a week for the NHS. I encourage you to read the and hopefully to understand what such mindless repetitions do to incinerate thought within our so-called democratic society.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/20/brexiteers-trump-language-fake-news

The problem goes beyond politics and enters the realm of language erosion. In our province, the local newspapers write at a grade nine language level and like it or not, we deal on a daily basis with functional illiteracy. Spelling, if and when people actually write, has become phonetic because less and less reading takes place, and the world is summed up in catchy sound bytes from radio and television and the shorter the better. Slowly, we are reduced to devouring slogans like those repeated above.

I look at the trees in the garden: birch, pine, spruce, fir, tamarack, hackmatac (from the Western Abenaki?), balsam poplar, larch, willow, mountain ash, black willow … they can all be reduced to trees. In my garden, at the feeder, I have birds, sparrows (so many varieties), nuthatches (white and red-breasted), woodpeckers (at east three kinds), finches (many species), grosbeaks, siskins, song-birds, warblers, passerines … but as the clear-cut loggers who cleaned the hillside behind my house pronounced “trees are just trees, we’re here to clear them out,” we might just as well say “birds, just birds, we’re here to fatten them and feed them to the cats”.

The erosion of language, the erosion of thought, the dumbing-down of society, the reduction of the world to advert, slogan, and chant, the loss of thoughtful democracy … this is what I fear most. And, as I age, I fear the loss of memory as song sparrow, white-throat, chipping, Lincoln, are slowly fading into generic ‘sparrows’. Soon, alas, they will probably all flap their wings and fly away, fading into the simplistic grey mist of a disappearing species … ‘birds’. I fear that day and I fear what memory loss and thought incineration and language erosion are doing to my precious world.

More thoughts on language erosion can be found here

https://rogermoorepoet.com/2018/11/17/thinking-outside-the-box/

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.