Sunday, January 30, 2011

In Search of Lost Time - Final Instalment

See Instalment 4 here

Now he was at the Battery Bistro, renamed La Vista in its latest incarnation, at the end of Harbour Drive, overlooking the Tickle. The booths were no longer a burgundy velvet, they were a Mexican print. The special of the day was burritos. He made his way to the back and sat in the same old dark corner. It was early, too soon for lunch. He ordered a coffee and then signaled the waitress and added an Irish whiskey and tossed it back like she would have and ordered another and did the same.

He left a twenty on the table and went up the hill to Boston Way. Far too soon, would she be there yet? It said two on the paper. It wasn’t even noon.

There was a notice outside. At rest - what rubbish - Una Doyle and the visitation hours listed underneath. He entered the hush of the place. The thick carpets. The strange smell, he could never identify the components of a funeral home smell. Nothing as crude as formaldehyde, but subtler, a cocktail mix of the hothouse flowers, the wood, the candles, the paper of all the cards, the beeswax polish.

Can I help you? The murmur came from his left at an entrance to a large room. There was a casket being arranged at the far end. There were a lot of flowers around. She was an older lady, his age, she looked both familiar and in charge and she confirmed it by telling him she was Leona Darcy, the funeral director, and he remembered her from church and reminded her of their connection and she immediately shifted into a more intimate helpfulness and first name terms.

A client of mine, he said confidentially, here to pay my respects. Una Doyle.
Ah, she said, right Richard. That’s not till two, but she’s here and her daughters are here and her brothers, and her mother too, private family viewing and arranging at the moment, but hang on and I’ll get the girls and she was gone before he could stop her and thought to race out the door but Leona knew him now and how odd would that be, so he stayed rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do with his hands so shoved them, gloves and all, into his pockets and pursed his lips into a whistle type arrangement but thought better of it.

The girls. There they were in front of him now. Identical twins. Una’s hair. The dimple on her lower lip. But blue eyes. Taller than Una. They offered him friendly, puzzled smiles. He removed his cap and gloves to shake their hands and followed them into a small coffee room at the back of the funeral home.

When did you know Mum? Elspeth said. Elspeth was in yellow and Isobel was in blue.
The time of the divorce, and then I saw the notice in the paper today….his voice trailed off.

They looked blankly at him.

Richard Kelly, he offered helpfully, I was her, and he paused, her lawyer.

Which divorce? Asked Isobel, the one in blue.

Oh, said Richard, taken aback, the one from your father?

Three marriages ago, Elspeth giggled, looking at her sister.

Mother and marriage! and Isobel rolled her eyes, she was even going to try it again and then the cancer came a year ago. Lung. From all those Players.

Richard tried to gather his thoughts and failed, they were scattering everywhere. But he had to know, dear God. Ask it. He took a deep breath and was glad of the warmth of the whiskey still nestled in his stomach.

Did she ever mention me? he asked, Richard Kelly, he added again, just in case they missed it the first time.

The girls looked at each other.
One of her husbands was a Richard, Elspeth said helpfully, frowning in concentration, but that only lasted six months, did you handle that divorce?

He shook his head, and stared blankly at the table top, refusing their offer of coffee.
No, no, just the first one, he stood up and shook their hands in turn, bowing a little, backing away as they looked at each other and followed him across the foyer.

Will you be here at two for the public viewing or would you like to come in now? from Elspeth.

He shook his head again. No. No. And he thought frantically for something to say, and nothing would come out around the previous something that was stuck in his throat. He walked away.

He stood outside the main door, coughing, donning his cap and gloves, and just before he closed it he heard one of them murmur to the other, I wonder what brought him here?

And the reply, Strange old bird, yeah?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Search of Lost Time - Instalment 4

See Instalment 3 Here

This would all have been enough, he was content just sitting in the car with her, in the booth at the Bistro, walking by the boats in the harbour, her hand in his. He had heard the expression that his cup runneth over, but this was even bigger, astonishing him to the core with the magnitude of his feelings, his desire to be with her.

Even that very same night, lying in bed with her afterwards, knowing he had to tear himself away he had said and so seriously:
Una, I’m not the kind of chap who does this.
And she had understood him as she always would.
I know, was all she said, I know you Richard, and then she kissed him and pushed him gently out of the bed.

And next morning over breakfast, he had lied skillfully about a case he had to work on, he had shut off the office phones they got so busy after the secretary had left, lost all track of time, fell asleep at his desk, woke up at two in the morning, what a shock. It was easy. Just like that.

And later, walking around at lunchtime, finding himself at a jewelers and catching sight of a bird of paradise brooch and walking in and buying it. Just like that. And writing a cheque on the company account. Just like that. And it felt so normal, it took his breath away. As if he were born to it. And going over to the Writers’ Club on Abbot Lane and leaving the box in a company envelope in her mailbox. Just like that.

And her voice on the phone in late afternoon.

Happy anniversary, darling, he’d said.

Anniversary? She’d said, laughing. Her laugh, smoky with the Player’s cigarettes and the Jameson’s whiskey she favoured.

Twenty-four hours, he’d said, his breath catching, it’s the bird of paradise one. And she’d laughed again, her breath catching too.

He looked around him, my god, he’d left the bench at the park and now he was in the grounds of the hospital, looking up at the windows, which one had it been? He found himself at the main desk, a man of measured words always, now searching and fumbling.
Una Doyle, he got out. Una Doyle?

The receptionist looked at her computer screen and clicked a few keys.
Oh, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my love… but he broke in before she finished.

I know, I know, what room was she in? his strangled urgency sounding strange even to his own ears.

Four sixteen, why? Can I help you? And he heard the words echoing behind him as he pushed the button of the elevator, once, twice, three times. As if he were a man on the run.

What did he hope to find in room four sixteen? There were two occupied beds, several visitors turned to face him as he stood in the doorway. Which bed? He’d like to think it was the one by the window. You could see the lake from there and if you looked downaways you could nearly see the bench they would sit on in the afternoons.

He had thought he could leave Doris. Maybe after Gavin left law school, but then Susan said she wanted to become a doctor. It was all too much. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t squeeze Una into the picture of lawyer’s wife, stepmother to Gavin and Susan and himself as stepfather to the vapourous toddler twins. He’d never even met them. Una had been adamant on that. Only if they had a real commitment.

He had told her for two years to leave it with him. He’d sort it. But he couldn’t, could he.

He was president of the Bar Association, chair of the Rotary, deacon at St. Paul’s. He couldn’t get his head around Una fitting in with all of that. Until Una, he’d never thought about any of that stuff. It just was. Until Una. Una with her diaphanous skirts and peasant blouses and loud orange boots and Jesus sandals and chain-smoking and chugalugging her whiskey and laughing uproariously and obscene poetry and daring him to do it in a public place (and they had on the bench in midsummer), and sometimes no underwear.
And then he’d made the big move. He went and talked to his rector at St. Paul’s and told him the whole story, watched as Reverend Cripp’s eyebrows just about folded into his hairline.

Are you mad, man? was all Reverend Cripp had said, out of your mind? Think of Doris, of your poor shamed children. And all for what?

And it was the shamed children that had done it. Susan and her dreams actually. Poor shamed Susan, she might have run away, drugs, pregnancy, who knew. Her medical school aspirations trashed by her own father. He asked Una to wait for another five years. To be his mistress in the meantime. He’d given that a lot of thought. He could afford to subsidize her. Keep her and her children.

She’d reacted like he had offered to pimp her on Duckworth Street. Her horror and rage knocked him sideways.

You think this is about money? She’d yelled at him, leaping up from the park bench, standing, leaning over him, shoving his shoulder crudely over and over again. The words following were horrific.

He agreed with all of it, now sheltering his head from her blows. Yes-yessed her until she collapsed again beside him. Sobbing. Rejecting his arms, finally staggering to her feet, wiping at her cheeks, hitting the handkerchief he offered her.

You’re like the rest of them, all the other fuckers, you either die or leave. Useless fucker! I never want to see you again!

She had yelled this as she backed away, down the path, and then turned and raced off in her pink runners with the yellow laces and their smiley faces, her jewellery clanking, her hair flying in all directions.

Friday, January 28, 2011

In Search of Lost Time - Instalment 3

See Instalment 2 here

She’d sat across his desk at Kelly and Kelly when it was only Richard Kelly LLB. And he joked afterwards with her that it took all of five seconds for him to fall in love with her, hopelessly and forever.

She was wearing Levis and some wild tie-dyed tee-shirt and there were things threaded through her hair, feathers, he thought, strings, beads, heavy chunky things around her neck and around her wrists and her huge earrings were even bigger and carried some kind of payload as well, crystals and amulets. Her knapsack was purple and it would later spill books and papers and maps and even candles all over the floor when she went to find something in it.

But first she had shaken hands with him and then sat down and said: You’ve got to nail the fucker for me, Richard. Can you do that?

And no one had ever asked him to nail anything, not even a picture, ever before. And something happened inside his chest, a slow surprising warmth spread through it and his hands trembled as they played with the pen and the notepad and he cleared his throat and found himself tumbling into those golden brown eyes that were appealing to him as if he, Richard, were some kind of knight, some sort of saviour of maidens in distress and the warmth hit his arms and he spread them outwards and looked at her steadily and vowed fervently: Una, I’ll nail him.

And he had wanted to add ‘so help me God’ because it felt like that kind of moment. But he stopped himself.

And he heard about the deadbeat husband who had abandoned her and the twins and headed off to Toronto with the sixteen year old babysitter.

I mean, Richard, it’s like the cliché of clichés, right? She was breathless; there was very little anger in her. A waste of energy, she said when he questioned that. He was a useless fucker, she said, she was mad to ever marry him, not to mention breeding with him, and here she rolled her eyes at him, but the twins were dotes, gorgeous girls, three now, in pre-school. They deserved every bleeding penny he, Richard, could squeeze from the fucker. She was a writer; did he want to hear the poem she wrote about the fucker leaving with his kiddy-fuck?

Richard, stunned, still trying on his suit of guardian of the downtrodden, nodded and this was the moment she poured the knapsack all over the floor. Richard intercommed his secretary and said to hold his calls and cancel his four o’clock and he went around the desk ostensibly to help her retrieve all her stuff but when she sat down in the middle of it all, he sat down too, not even bothering to adjust the knife edges on his pin stripes. She read her poem about abandonment and her little girls and her mother and her father who had died at sea and the tears rolled down her cheeks when she had finished and it was just like that, so easy, so natural, he put his arms around her and rocked her.

And it was like finding all the remaining pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. It all came together without any big song and dance. The both of them sliding into place beside each other. He took down all the relevant and legal details of Hugh Doyle, the fucker, while still sitting on the floor and when all that was done he put the notepad down and took her in his arms again and said: Can you meet me at the Battery Bistro at eight for dinner tonight? I’ll make a reservation. Then he walked around his desk as if nothing of any import had happened. As if this cosmic tidal wave had occurred to someone else.

She had just nodded as she got to her feet, keeping her eyes on his as she threw her knapsack on and then, as if they had been saying goodbye to each other in such a fashion for years, touched her finger to the indentation on her lower lip, kissed it and turned it to him in a tiny salute before backing out of the room.

He had thought affairs complicated and not worth all the trouble. A matter of immense proportion to be ordered and plotted and planned and slid around and lied about. A lurking, messy business fraught with booby traps and hidden landmines.

None of this was the case with Una. Her mother took the twins on command it seemed and Una’s small apartment was on a side street off the beaten track. He was not so much aware of the breach of his wedding vows as not causing Doris any unnecessary hurt so took some pains not to flaunt it. That night, the first of many dinners at the Bistro, booth six in the back, he felt like a cliché himself, telling her, in a voice that had never before expressed the baffling loneliness of his marriage, that he and Doris had ceased to sleep together after her hysterectomy, but not from his doing. She had taken on the persona of many women he had observed in the province once they turned forty. She had shortened her hair to a brisk mannish razor cut after the operation and announced with feeling that thank God, they’d had enough of that nonsense and separate bedrooms were now the order of the day.

He and Una had talked of everything and nothing. She was an editor, writer, director, poet, actor totally involved in the arts scene in St. John’s. It turned out she had come to the wrong lawyer; someone had recommended Kelly the so-called barracuda of St. John’s. Richard told her that was Wild Willy Kelly, the divorce specialist. He, Richard, handled the dry as dust cases, the government ones, the ships colliding, the insurance, the falling walls and missing manhole covers, the sundry grievances of the disgruntled segment of the populace. She said, I’ve got the right lawyer, Richard, and took his hand across the table.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In Search of Lost Time - Instalment 2

See Instalment 1 here
Doyle, Una, loving mother of Elspeth and Isobel, mother-in-law of Austin, grandmother of Gretchen. Passed away from cancer at the Health Sciences Centre, St. John’s, Newfoundland on Monday. Visitation today at Darcy Funeral Home on Boston Way, St. John’s between two and nine o’clock and tomorrow between four and seven. Una was the creative force behind September Rock, the annual drama festival in St. John’s that featured new plays from across Canada. She was also a poet and writer and featured regularly in The Telegram along with other publications and taught drama at various summer schools around the province. Her two plays “Sighs from the Rock” and “Ages Ago” won various awards and she had just completed her second book of poetry, “Death and Other Newfie Jokes.” Funeral is on Friday at eleven a.m. from the Basilica. Donations to the Cancer Society. Cremation. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Cancer Society or to the Una Doyle Foundation, established at Memorial University to encourage young playwrights. She has left us the gift of her amazing joie de vivre.

Una. His Una. Oh God. He had a ridiculous thought amongst all the panic stricken ones in his head. It hadn’t said she’d struggled. He’d always thought how awful that was in an obituary, people struggling conjured up the appalling picture that they’d never gone through the four stages of a foretold death, the struggle came early, the acceptance came last. Anger was in there somewhere too and resignation. He forgot the order of it all, but he knew that acceptance was last. Maybe Una accepted? Oh God, he prayed she’d accepted, she hadn’t suffered. He bowed his head. Dear God, he started, she must be at peace? Please God. Peace.

Unbidden, startling, shocking, tears were flooding his eyes, steaming his glasses, salting his cheeks.

What’s wrong, Richard? The kitchen door had opened behind him; he sensed Doris’s uncertain presence.

Nothing dear, he said mildly, after a pause, shaking his paper and bending over it.

I thought I heard you groan or moan or something, a strange sound? Doris didn’t move from where she was.

He managed a h’mm, dismissive, the sound he usually made, he thought, never having been so aware of his own sounds as he was now in this minute.

He heard her releasing the door and it swung gently for a few seconds. All was silent again until she once more turned up the television.

He had never thought it would end like this. He had thought Una, who had been so present in his head, in his very body it felt like, for these last eighteen years would always walk in St. John’s. Would somehow be tuned into him too. Like a secret radio station. She had never stopped coursing through his blood, thinking about the way she would laugh, the way she would read some of her poetry to him, the way she’d call him stuffy, the way she felt in his arms, how he would lift her up and bury his face in her neck. He carried all of that around with him all the time. Una. Lily of the Valley was her perfume. George Harris was her favourite Beatle. Amber yellow was her favourite colour. Her left knee had a hole where she had a terrible tumble from a bicycle when she was six. Her hair had a life of its own that no cut or perm or treatment had ever tamed. Her fingernails were always bitten. Her bottom lip had an indentation in the middle. She would laugh about her permanent little pot belly that had cradled her twins and like the mark of Zorro would never leave her. She called it her double oven.

Are you sure you’re alright dear? It was Doris again, this time he watched her sensible pink slippers pad over to where he sat, his head bowed. He took his glasses off without looking up and unpacked his Irish linen handkerchief from his cardigan pocket and dabbed at his eyes.

A cold, I think, Doris, I’m coming down with a bit of a cold. And he blew long and hard into the fine fabric.

You’re making the most woeful of noises, Richard, are you in pain? Doris reached over to touch his shoulder and pat it diffidently as she would a stranger. They had long ago lost the maps to each other’s bodies.

Sorry dear, Richard said now honking for good measure into his hankie a second time; I’m having some difficulty coughing.But I’m fine, fine, he amended quickly. Quite fine. Allergies, perhaps.

Doris hesitated for another second then left the kitchen again. Back to her morning dose of talking heads.

Richard went to the hall and put on his coat, his cap and his gloves and glanced in at Doris in the family room.

A breath of fresh air should fix me, he called, timing the sentence to coincide with the second he moved through the front door. He closed it quickly and headed off down and around the corner up Forest Road. He was a good fifty yards up the road when he could have sworn he heard the door open and a faint Richard? trail up the air behind him but he didn’t acknowledge it and thought he heard the door close in resignation. Forest Road, moving in the direction of the hospital. What on earth? Keep moving, he instructed himself, just keep moving. Away from the house. Away from everyone.

It could be a mistake, Una Doyle. There must be many Una Doyles with daughters, twin daughters named Elspeth and Isobel right? Many co-incidences like that in life. A common name Doyle. Very common in Newfoundland. How old would Una be now? Fifty, she’d be fifty, no age given on the death notice. She was fifteen years younger than him.

He slipped into Quidi Vidi park. Their bench. She couldn’t wait anymore. This was where she told him, stealing all the magic off the bench when she left it for the last time. Eighteen years ago next month. He sat and leaned over and stared at the river. He hadn’t thought she’d meant it after their magical two years together. He banged his fists off his forehead, desperately wanting to hurt, wanting a bodily wound, a visible bruise, blood. How could she die and he not know? How could she suffer without him holding her? How could she leave taking her lips and her ragged fingernails and her voice and her poetry and the golden brown of her eyes that matched the freckles on her breasts just so?

In Search of Lost Time - Instalment 1

It was a morning like all of the others behind him. Doris was in her sensible housecoat at the stove in the kitchen, his egg, soft-boiled one and half minutes, in the one remaining Doulton egg cup that was left from a set of four, a wedding gift forty years ago. The Globe and Mail was folded in its blue plastic baggie beside his plate, black and white striped ironstone. His coffee was poured, ready for his cream. No one could ever do his cream right except himself. The barest teaspoon of it sufficed with no sugar.

Richard was showered, dressed impeccably in what is referred to as casual wear and which for him was a pressed pair of khaki trousers, a checkered shirt and one of many retiree cardigans in various dull shades ranging from putty to mud, that Doris and or their children and or their grandchildren replenished on a regular basis, a neat row of twelve hung in his closet, dry-cleaned and waiting. He was ready for the day that loomed endlessly ahead. Just like every day since he had retired from his law practice five years ago. At Gavin’s, their son’s, insistence. Though it was subtly done and none in the family ever referred to it again. Now Kelly and Kelly was down one Kelly and up an Aherne and a Rogers but it remained Kelly and Kelly and would, Richard suspected, until he had tossed off his mortal coil.

He murmured a good morning Doris with the usual politeness accorded her on the occasions throughout the day when their paths would intersect, and she responded with his two slices of whole wheat, barely golden from the toaster, scraped sparingly with Becel, placed just so on his plate.

From long habit, and with his left hand, he unfolded his black and white checkered napkin and placed it on his khaki lap while tossing a teaspoon worth of cream into the coffee and sipping it with a satisfied ah before scrutinizing the headlines of the paper. When his egg was finished, he selected a fruit from the bowl - it was Wednesday so it was a kiwi - and carefully peeled it in one strip with the fruit knife from the top of his placemat, an English scene of horse and hounds bought on a tour around England three years ago. He laid the peel carefully on the edge of his plate and carved the fruit into four bite size pieces.

Doris by this time had left the kitchen, he had ceased years ago to ask her why she couldn’t sit down and share at least one meal a day with him. Next he perused the stock market activity of the day before and then headed for the obituaries. He was quite unprepared for what he read under the Ds and had to read it three times before he comprehended the full measure of it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Offputting: Redux

One has to have sympathy, and I do. This couple's son died from brain cancer not too long ago. And I live in a very small village. And I have yet to see another laser printer in anyone's house.

I have written of Elsie before here.

This is a verbatim conversation I just had with her on the telephone:

Me: Hello?

Elsie: You need to type up a letter for me right away.

Me: I can't do that, I have other commitments right now.

Elsie: This is important.

Me: So are my WORK commitments.

Elsie: Not as important as this, my post office box in Ontario is costing me $90 a year and I need it cancelled because.......blah blah blah.... full boring story of the history of the post office in Canada and how tenants blah blah...son's death.... she shouldn't have to pay.... blah blah blah......

Me (10 minutes have now gone by): Elsie, I have to go, other line is ringing (lie).

Elsie: I don't hear it, I don't even hear a beep, I don't hear anything.

Me: It's on hold (flustered, lying yet again.)

Elsie: Ha-ha. Now you should be finished sometime later on with your work, I'll be up at 9 tonight.

Me: That doesn't work for me Elsie.

Elsie (getting nastier): Heck! No one can be that busy, 10 tonight then but you're pushing it.

Me: It would have to be tomorrow.

Elsie, One of those awful sighs: Oh heck - I'll be there at 11 ayem right on the dot. And you'd better come up with some good wording for the hecky post office and put them in their place. I'll need 4 copies.

Me (weary, beaten down, angry with self): OK.

She hangs up the phone without another word. She never says thank you. Never does the courtesy how are yous, etc.

I just hate how she makes me feel. Small. Mean. Angry. Used. Childish.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The First Big Snowfall Brings the Queen.

A scheduled rehearsal for my play was cancelled today due to the (unseasonal) weather - OMG SNOW! My suddenly idle mind was struck by the way the snow fell on a newel post on my deck, producing this wonderful profile of Queen Victoria:

Don't believe me? - look!

I know, I know. I should get a life.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wednesdays Unplugged Redux

(An Teachín, finished on the outside, pic taken Tuesday, snow is gone again).

This experiment of unplugged Wednesdays is truly amazing.

I look forward to it. Plan carefully for it and then let the wind take me where it will.

Nothing exciting at all. Maybe grocery shopping, maybe a movie, though what St. John's has to offer is depressing - the demographic has to be hormonal, grammatically challenged 13 year old boys with a blood lust.

I read a lot on my Wednesdays and work internally on the new play, for my best ideas have always come while driving. I meet some friends, sometimes. But mostly I am alone. Newfoundland is a place one talks to strangers. There is a natural curiousity that I love in Newfoundlanders who pick up on my accent and have to know right then and there where I am from and when I confirm, yes, Ireland, there is unbridled joy: the Homeland! So then I have to get into the journey that brought me here and then it is their turn. It is all about clan and family and outports and connections.

The voicemails wait on my phones.
The emails nest together irritably.
Facebook updates slide sideways.
Lexulous boards are anxious.

Now I haven't gone to two days unplugged yet. But we'll see.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Isolation of the Single Emigrant

Familial isolation I talk about. Of a long term emigrant with family back in the old country or scattered in other global faraways.

I had a long chat with my sister who lives in Cork, Ireland, the other day. Very long. Catching up. Pondering travel to a nephew's marriage in April. In Argentina. Updates on family and politics but nothing too deep or serious and a few good laughs.

These familial threads are very slender indeed. Unless I put a lot of effort into them. i.e. be the emailer all the time, be the caller all the time instead of taking turns at these roles of emailee and callee. And I find as I age that the health and spark deplete a little until I don't have that kind of energy to throw into the black holes of no response anymore. I conserve it for those who do. For instance my daily emails to my lifelong friend in Dublin and hers to me. She knows more about me than any of my family does and I feel the love all those thousands of miles away. As I hope she does from me (Hi, H----!).

My friends in Toronto still call/email regularly and those ropes are very strong. I've thought for years that family is an illusion. We create our own families of love, trust and mutual support and admiration. And my family of choice is large.

I observe the blood families around me, see the emigrants from Newfoundland return regularly to land in their tribe of origin and dig right in. And weep when they leave.

And feel the loss of mine. And wonder if it was ever there to begin with.

And no, I'm not sad about this. At all. Just reflecting on what human connections sustain us. And mine are very rich indeed.

But there's always the what ifs of the fragile ties to loved siblings.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gerry Rafferty RIP

I was so very saddened to read of Gerry Rafferty's passing. I've been a fan of his since the seventies and "Baker Street" remains one of my all-time favourite songs with its haunting saxophone solo.

Windin' your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day
You'll drink the night away
And forget about everything
This city desert makes you feel so cold.
It's got so many people but it's got no soul
And it's taking you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it had everything

In and out of rehab, it seems that Gerry never slew his inner demons.

Rest in peace, Mr. Rafferty - Kyrie Eleison.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Riff on the First Snowfall

And it's just about gone now. I like the monochromatic aspect of it all. The fluffy new blanket cuddling the brown earth, smoothing the rocks and shingles of the shore, mothballing the trees for the spring.

My clever birds burrowed deep into the bird feeder and yelled to each other that the food conundrum was solved for another day. The pecking order took over, bluejays first, juncoes next and last the sparrows, patiently waiting, flipping the soft flakes from their wings as they stood in an orderly line on the railing.

I was deliberately slowing down myself. What the hell is my hurry most days I asked myself. In a life of rushing around I have to tell myself it is perfectly OK to slow down now, stroll, don't run. Savour the air, breathe in, breathe out, stop even. Slow down the world for a minute or six.

It is alien to my nature not to rush about the appointed tasks, hurry the phonecall, pile the fire high all at once, add more baking to the floured board, make three dozen more.

I think I know now why some elders slow down to a crawl. It is not physical or mental limitation at all.

It is a conscious choice - to savour all we could never do before. Finally we are stopping to smell the roses. And the cedar and the woodsmoke and the ocean.

Time. So precious. I'll have eight more lifetimes, please.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Self-Educated Toilet Woman

Framed skylight with the interior panelling completed, outlet is for the marine light for the loft bed.

Wow. I've never been so involved with toilets as I am today. I mean, yuck, right? Poop, pee, excrement, faeces, urine, voiding and other more unseemly words. "Little Things" and "Big Things" as they were called by my ladylike mother in the house I grew up in, shortened to "Lickuns" and "Bickuns" by my brothers, who in that manner peculiar to miniature males, found speculating on what exactly a visitor performed in our bathroom a matter of thigh-slapping, snorting and falling-down-helpless hilarity. One even went so far as to take penny bets as to - ahem - outcomes.

It was extremely challenging to be even remotely feminine in that house of testosterone and it was mostly a case of join 'em. But I did draw the line at guessing or betting at the specifics of bathroom excretions of aunts and uncles and other assorteds.

There is a point to this post. Yeah. Gordon-the-Gift had sent me trotting around to investigate composting toilets. There is very little on line in the way of information on these, as pertaining to Newfoundland anyway: unheard of devices. There are none on the island, I've been told. What most people do with an "An Teachín" such as mine, is sneak in an old oil tank underneath the house as a catchment type of system and then don't tell anybody. Meaning the authorities or Environment Canada or local municipalities. And they always get away with it, I was informed, so what is this nonsense about composting toilets, hardy-har-har, when you could dig in an old oil tank and use that as a sorta septic system.

For a minute or two I was swayed there. Yeah, no one would know. But I would. And the town council trusts me to do what I promised on the permit. And seriously, you're either all green and enviro-tree-huggy or this po-faced hypocrite getting away with some nasty behaviour and all that shouting about groundwater and leakage and seepage you did would be just another emperor wearing no clothes.

So I tackled the problem head(sorry)on and went to the manager of Home Depot and asked for help. And guess what, they were bloody wonderful and we all talked to the manufacturer down in in the USA, and found out all there is to know about composting toilets, which are odour-free with a tank that sits underneath the cabin with an outside hand crank you turn every day - to mix her up goodlike - and an airvent that brings in the air to activate the bacteria that does the job and it all condenses down to a drawer that eventually fills up with powder-like compost for the garden.

There was a special discounted web price on the toilet plus shipping, and the HD people dropped 15% off this price and there was no shipping charge on top of this and it will be here in three weeks

It's still pretty expensive - for Thomas Crapper's big invention.

I never, ever, get over the view from the covered deck of An Teachín.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Suspension Bridge

On one side of the bridge is the solitude, the reclusiveness, the state of aloneness.

On the other is the support, the friendship, the love from others.

Sometimes I have to force myself to cross that bridge and interact with my own species. I've talked about being a gregarious loner, well sometimes the "lone" part has a very slender thread to the "gregarious".

I ignored a call to attend a turkey dinner yesterday with people I very much care about. The idea of being alone had far more appeal. And I find it does for the most part lately and I am more than a little wary of it.

The darker internal machinations start to assemble in a corner of my brain and begin to sharpen their weapons. I ask myself, are others like me? I do believe they are. Well, some are.

Old thoughts surface. Memories of my missing daughter for one. That never leaves, it just goes into a somnolent state and then the darker forces get noisy and wake her up. A few of the "might-have-beens" join her and then a cluster of long lost relatives and friends. I have to force myself to pick up the phone, rejoin community, make arrangements for a chat, share feelings with the few trusted others I have in my life.

So today, I move along that suspension bridge to the other side and rejoin society. If I hang in the middle too long, the wind picks up and it starts to sway rather dangerously.

I do not ponder on what would happen with an extended stay on the solitary side of it. I have seen those darker forces win the day, slashing the slender wires to sanity and allowing the madness to take over. Completely.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Nollaig Na Mban

Of all the posts or articles I have ever written, this is the one that has gotten the most attention and the most links from other blogs and publications. I reprint it here in its entirety and I am so, so happy this beautiful custom is now being held all over the world and not just in Ireland. Emails from New York, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and even Germany tell me it is being revitalized. Long may it continue!

The following is a copy of a column I wrote several years ago. I realize that not many of you may have heard of this beautiful old Irish tradition and thought it deserved another audience.
Nollaig Na Mban - "Little Christmas" - or "Women's Christmas" as my mother used to call it - always fell on January 6 and was a tradition unto itself. Maybe it was just a peculiarity of the time and place in which I grew up - Cork, Ireland in the fifties and sixties in the last century. (And I don't think I ever thought I would write "last century" with such cheerful abandon!)

I was remembering Women's Christmas and wondering whatever happened to it and if anyone in Ireland is carrying on its charm and wonder anymore, or are we all swept up permanently in the Big Day, December 25 itself. I've talked to some Ukrainian friends here and they celebrate their traditional Christmas on that day - Twelfth Night as it is known in England - but I believe that Women's Christmas was unique to a time and place in Ireland now gone forever. But I hope not.

The day of the Women's Christmas women were supposed to take it completely easy after all the hustle, bustle and hard work of the prior months, with the men now taking care of them and cooking and cleaning all day. I can assure you that this never happened in my house as, like many men of his era, my father didn't know one end of a broom from the other and boiling a kettle was the peak of his culinary skill.

However, my mother was the eldest female of her family so consequently her sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts and mother came around on that day and a smaller, daintier version of the Christmas meal was served. On the menu were: a bird (usually a fine roast chicken), a smaller lighter plum pudding and a lovely cake, usually dressed up in the fanciest of pink wrappers with silver sprinkles everywhere on the pink and white icing. The most delicate of my mother's tea sets was brought out, my own favourite, the lavender and pale green set. I would love to hold one of these little saucers up to the light and put my hand behind it, as it was so fragile you would see all your fingers through it.

Gifts were exchanged, usually the most feminine of presents, perfume or talc, bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream were lined up on the sideboard and the fun would begin. I was encouraged by the grandmothers and great-aunts to always give my mother a little gift on that day for the woman that she was and I did, from a very early age. I would buy something small in Woolworth's on Patrick Street, a little comb or my personal favourite, those fiercely aromatic bath cubes, which were a whole three pence each. I would wrap it up in layers and layers of newspaper and it was always exclaimed over with the phrase, "Well now, I can hardly wait to use this"!

The coal fire would be stacked up high and already lit in the front room before anyone arrived, with Bord na Mona briquettes piled on the fender around it, and any male showing his face would be banished to some other spot in the house.

I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.

I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.

I'd learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn't know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years.

They would dredge up old musical numbers from their single days and sing a few bars while one or two got up and showed off their dancing legs. Sweet Afton cigarettes were lit and my grandmother would puff on her dudeen and we all could hardly see each other for the clouds of smoke.

Stories were told and they would get caught up on all the doings they might have missed in their conversations all year, obscure marriages and births, sometimes in Australia or other far flung and exotic outposts of the Irish Diaspora. But most of all I remember the peals of laughter which resounded throughout the house all day and evening.

A moment would come in the midst of all the hilarity when the time for a spot of prayer came. Out of the big black handbags that never left their sides would come the rosaries. These would be threaded through their fingers and all the heads would bow in unison. I never knew the prayer and haven't heard it since but it was to St Brigid, the women's saint of Ireland, and it involved her taking all the troubles of the year before and parking them somewhere in heaven and thus they were never to be seen again. This was followed by a minute of silence (while St Brigid did what she was asked, I have no doubt), then a fervent "Thanks be to God and all His saints" and a reverent kiss on the cross of the various rosaries which were all tucked away carefully into the handbags again. Then the glasses of sherry or the cups of tea were refilled and the whooping and carrying on would begin afresh, the bothers and griefs of the past year now permanently banished and forever.

And I wish this for all of you out there - both at home and abroad.

Wednesday - Unplugged

I had a techno-free day yesterday and I loved it so much I am seriously thinking of adding another one to the week. But not too soon as I wouldn't want to fall down and trip over myself on the way up.

No web.
No phone.
No computer.

One day off is fine for now.

I read. I wrote (by hand). I went out for a very long coffee stint with a fairly new friend and we were shocked when we both realized we were connected with the same work colleagues, me back in the day in Toronto and she currently. This would not have happened if I had been racing home to feed my Lexulous habit on the interwebz.

I also sorted some old knitting, took a chilly walk with the dog, made a more comprehensive to do list, visited a used book store, a Sally Anne and a Value Village and had Mongolian food for dinner and read 6 chapters of a book.

I recommend being unleashed even for just one day a week.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Writing Down the Dirt

I am more attached to him than I am to her. Beatrice is very uptight in that way that never lets down, no matter how hard you try or how funny you are. There is a fragility about Lawrence. Far too much for a man of seventy plus years. An uncertainty, an odd clumsiness, a shyness around his writing and his painting.

I have an enormous advantage being a (fairly) newbie here. I perceive the longtimers without their attendant history and baggage. Newborn babes in a way to me. And I to them of course.

Lawrence (never Larry) was a school teacher back in the day. And I'm a story-sponge as anyone who reads me here knows. I just soak up the tales from anywhere and everywhere.

Here is a sampling of what I've been told about Lawrence:

"A right old bastard, he beat the s*** out of me when I was a lad."

"A poncy boy, always was, always will be."

"A great teacher, taught us the whole history of Newfoundland and made it so interesting, I never forgot it."

"He and his wife? Well he's old enough to be her father but they adopted four children that no one else wanted so there's a lot of good there."

"A pillar of the church, always helping the priests out."

Here's what Lawrence has told me:

He gets terrible depressions. He was the only son among daughters and his father would beat the tar out of him to make him more 'manly'. He was abused as a young boy by the local priest and has never told anyone except me and his wife.

He is terrified of putting the real history of his family in writing as he has convinced himself that no one, including his children, would ever talk to him again.

He told me his grandmother's story one afternoon and I was riveted, I encouraged him to write all of it down, it is so fascinating. But when he did and handed it to me to read he had left out her many interesting human foibles and wrote only about her saintliness.

I said to him: Lawrence, write down the dirt. People want the dirt. They pay for the dirt. There's dirt in everyone. It re-assures us when we read of it in others!

But he's a man who won't use his real name on Facebook.

So how can he sign his name to the shenanigans of his own grandmother?

And he won't even consider a nom de plume.

He was extremely depressed when the second to last parish priest was transferred out of the parish and sent off somewhere, who knows where.

Out walking a few months ago, I asked him was he very attached to the previous priest, was that what was getting him so down?

He looked at me askance, and shook his head.

Ah, sez he, you wouldn't believe the half of it.

And no more would he say.

And last night my buddy George and I were talking over a cup of coffee and he sez:

I was glad to see the back of that Father Herbert!

Oh why, sez I.

Ah, didn't you know, sez he, he was having a massive carry-on with Beatrice, Lawrence's wife?

Go on b'y! sez I.

Along with having the brass to finance the affair out of the collection baskets!

And of course, he adds, that old idiot Lawrence wouldn't have a clue! (George is one of the pupils that Lawrence punished excessively in school).

I kept my mouth shut. I always do.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Books of 2010

I did a little less better on the book count scene (45 vs 51) than I did in 2009. But I figure it is about the same in page count as in the previous year as there were many 800 pagers in my selections - Stieg Larsson's series being one of them and Tana French's.

I don't have teevee to distract me but I think I would do a lot better edging on my target goal of 100 books a year if I stayed away from screensucking on the interwebz. I have declared some days webzfree days but I don't stick to it on a weekly basis like some of my more balanced friends do.

One friend is up to a self imposed TWO WHOLE DAYS per week off. Oh, I whinge, but I'd miss my blog buddies and my Lexulous! OK, I'm going to be a grownup and declare one day a week off for now. Well, this is Sunday, right? So it can't be Sunday. Wednesday then? OK. Wednesday.

And here they are, these glorious books, the ones in bold with the stars being ones I rated the very best:

February - Lisa Moore*
18 Stories - Heinrich Boll
Push - Sapphire
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion*
Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende
Dali - Frank Weyers
A Good House - Bonnie Burnard
The Time of Their Lives - Wayne Johnston
The Room Upstairs - Monica Dickens
Life Penalty - Joy Fielding
Molly Child Number 583 - Mary Keenan (thank you Tessa!)
Fear the Worst - Linwood Barclay
Middlemarch - George Elliot (again, yum!)*
The Moons of Jupiter - Alice Munro*
Lost Souls - Michael Collins
Paris Requiem - Lisa Appignanesi
Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel - Various
The Mistress of Nothing - Kate Pullinger
Between Friends - Mickey Pearlman *
Where you belong - Barbara Taylor Bradford (dropped - too formulaic)
A Separate Peace - John Knowles*
A Painted House - John Grisham
Last Dance, Last Chance - Ann Rule(filler only waiting for book box delivery)
A Creed for the Third Millenium - Colleen McCullough
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson*
The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson*
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro (again!)*
Secret Daughter - Shilpi Somaya Gowda
A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway (again!)*
Short Stories of 1943 - Herschel Brickell
In the Woods - Tana French
The Glass Harmonica - Russell Wangersky
The Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver*
Magic Moments from the Movies - Elwy Yost
The Likeness - Tana French
Room - Emma Donaghue*
Annabel - Kathleen Winter
Angels and Insects - A.S. Byatt
Light Lifting - Alexander MacLeod
When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
The Artificial Newfoundlander - Larry Mathews
The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver
Faithful Place - Tana French*
Alone at Sea - John Morris (not finished)