Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Old Year Resolutions

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning."
-T.S. Eliot

"Have you made any resolutions?"
Mater posed the question as we perched on the brink of a new year. I admitted that I had, indeed, made some sincere commitments, one of which included the consumption of tea without sugar.
Astonished she was, and thoroughly disbelieving, as she knows well how much I like sugar in my tea; but I assured her that it was my honest intention.
"That being said," I said, "I don't have to suffer it for very long."
Mater, being curious, wished to know exactly why.
This was the truth: the aforementioned vow arrived too late to be of any use. It was a new year resolution, yes, but belonged exclusively to the year just passing, and as a happy result the first day of January would see a clean page upon which I might write another resolution while I drink my sweetened beverage.
Crafty, certainly, but utterly convenient. I highly recommend the last-minute addition of resolutions on the very last day of the year, rendering said promise null and void within mere hours.
I enjoy a bit of sugar in my tea, and I loathe the red tape of self obligation, considering it a dull and joyless way to begin what might turn out to be a lovely year.
Happy 2009 to all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Battle of the Bottle

"The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy."
-Von Clausewitz

They say to always beware of the quiet ones. I was that way in school: quiet, unassuming, blending harmlessly in with the classroom walls.
And then one day when I was fifteen, while my classroom bubbled over chaotically as we waited for the teacher to arrive, I was hit with a heavy glass bottle- walloped with such force that it almost knocked me out of my desk.
One fellow had been aiming for another's head, and my spine got caught in the middle.
I would have let the matter dwindle. I knew well it was an accident, that my presence had disrupted the intended route of the missile. But the thrower laughed, and then some more people laughed, and nobody at all apologised.
I remained crouched in my seat, trying to read my textbook, finding the same sentence over and over as the words blurred and melted together. Everybody forgot, the laughter stopped, the glass bottle was scooped up.
Then I slid unseen from my seat, made my way to the other side of the classroom and halted casually beside the chap with the appalling aim.
"Hello," I said, and he had only a moment of ice-cold understanding before I hit him in the face.
My classmates were stupefied, then got caught up in the hysteria of the moment, chanting my name and thereby acknowledging that a moment of paramount significance had taken place before their eyes- that somebody had come from nowhere and reduced a teenage boy to humiliated, streaming tears in front of his classmates.
Yes. Always beware of the quiet ones.

Monday, December 29, 2008

All the Tea in China

"Home, the spot of earth supremely b
A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest."
-Robert Montgomery

It would be erroneous to suggest I return to Ireland just for the sausages.
Most unfair, it would be, to the old hills and the idle sheep and the curling rivers and of course to Mater.
That being said, there are for me no sausages like the ones to be found at home. I grew up on a diet of fat pork sausages that never, over the years, diminished in taste, nor did they leave me hungry; but I am miles now from the sort I was accustomed to. I have long since resigned myself to the loss, and I look forward when plotting my next visit to the familiar taste of home.
So it struck me as a cruel and merciless trick to hear the solemn news that recently broke over Ireland the very day that I was due to fly there.
Due to either an anomaly, an accident or a miserable act of fate, every pork product in Irish stores was deemed a potential health hazard of disastrous proportions, and ordered to be ripped from the shelves, and burned, and those shelves were to remain bare until further notice.
Since none of the experts were quite certain what the precise length of Further Notice might amount to; and since my stay in Ireland was to be little more than one week; and since pork constitutes almost the entirety of an Irish breakfast; and since an Irish breakfast constitutes a considerable portion of what I eat in Ireland, one would have to forgive me for my intensely selfish reaction.
I stood dumbfounded among my luggage and my disintegrating visions of a hearty welcome meal, sure that the entire event was directed at me, concocted to provoke distress in me alone.
With the knowledge that there was not a sausage to be found at home, my feet would not assist in escorting me to the plane and they caused a terrible fuss.
I managed, in the end, to get where I wanted to go, but there was for once no tantalising mound of sausages to greet me on my homecoming.
Upon landing in Ireland, I had an opportunity to glimpse the pork section of a large supermarket. I had never seen such a grim sight inside a store: the back wall, normally dedicated to sausages and similar delicious items, had been scrubbed clean, and plastered all about were official notices apologising for the inconvenience. Crusty-eyed and exhausted and thoroughly miserable, I thought there and then that they did not know the half of it.
Mater, who was sorry for my trouble, made the best of it; and I ate many an egg and many a piece of fish during my visit. In time the matter was happily amended and the conveyor belt of the pork economy rolled once more, much to the relief of all.
Still, it was akin to visiting China for an auspicious tea-ceremony and being informed that the tea supply has vanished into thin air.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mater's Traffic Plan

"All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward."
-Ellen Glasgow

Mater grew up in a tiny green hamlet in England.
I knew this, of course, just as I know that today the place of her childhood is as crumbly and antiquated as ever, tufts of determined grass bisecting the smaller lanes and roadways. Time swept through the little nook but altered little in its path.
What I discovered just last month, however, much to my astonishment, is that when my mother was a schoolgirl, she submitted an essay with detailed suggestions on how to relieve the local traffic system and restructure the roads for efficiency- and that she subsequently won a prize for her efforts.
While I am heartened by the new knowledge of Mater's endeavours, I am also refreshed by the fact that, to judge by the present condition of the village, her advice was neither taken into account nor utilised. Progress, for all the praise heaped upon it, is not always hospitable. A stony road with grass streaming through its middle will forever, to my eyes, be the most telling sign of an area's health, and of its indelible character.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Spark People

"He that can have patience, can have what he will."
-Benjamin Franklin

There were sparks recently. Spouse and I were out and about on the busiest shopping day of the year; the mall was choked with people scurrying to the November sales, all hoping and hunting for a bargain and not willing to let the presence of other humans get in the way of a fine deal.
As a result we had little room to maneuver around the stores. At every turn some eager person would barrel into us at high velocity, usually because they were not paying attention but occasionally due to callous indifference.
One impatient young lady brushed hurriedly past Spouse as he stooped to examine some overpriced item on a shelf. She refused to wait another heartbeat and boldly pushed her way through, accidentally touching his hand as she did so.
Spouse, who routinely hesitates before grasping door handles due to the nature of the static that afflicts his person, and who is perpetually prepared for the shock when in a crowded area, felt a furious crackling burst of electricity at the abrupt collision of hands.
One would hope that the lady, too, felt the sparks and comprehended what had happened; that after the fright wore off she learned she had sailed too close and too hastily to the wind and had not given sufficient, courteous room to other customers.
Either that, or we shall soon discover a cryptic note in that section of the local paper devoted to Missed Connections, Lost Chances and Romantic Encounters.
The message would vaguely allude to the sparks that a certain girl is absolutely sure she and a fellow both experienced in their brief encounter in (insert store name), and if Spark Guy- who with any luck will be browsing the classified advertisements in a similar search for Spark Girl- would please, please make contact at such and such a number...
The follow-up to that sort of message, however, is patience, of which I doubt Spark Girl possesses a reasonable quantity.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wet Legs and Humour

"There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth."
-Victor Borge

In the middle of my recent flight to Ireland I was distracted by an elderly gentleman pacing about and scrubbing his legs with a blanket.
Somebody had stumbled and spilled a lot of water over the poor man, rendering him most uncomfortable.
The fellow's explanation for the wet attire- repeated at intervals whenever a passenger asked- was not so much a grumble or complaint as a calm commentary on his condition.
A stewardess approached and asked if there was anything she could do to help.
Any worries she might have been burdened with on his behalf were gently dismissed.
"It's only water. It'll dry," he insisted cheerfully.
After a moment the stewardess ventured a suggestion with a grin.
"Look- why don't you take the trousers off, and we'll pin them up on the clothes line? They'll be dry in no time at all."
Presently every soul within earshot, including the wet fellow, was laughing at the quick wit of the stewardess.
If one must be cocooned among strangers and recirculated air in a speeding vehicle thirty thousand feet above earth, it is wise above all to garnish the time with a sense of humour and an enduring spirit of camaraderie.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Trees

I remember, I remember
One day when I was three
Around Christmas in December,
What happened to our tree:
First of all the fairy fell
And then the lights went out.
And then the decorations fell-
That made my mother shout.
But I was too young then, you see,
As I was only three,
To understand the problem
Of putting up a tree.
I remember, I remember
One day when I was three
Around Christmas in December,
What happened to our tree:
First of all the fairy fell
And then the lights went out.
And then the decorations fell-
That made my mother shout.
But I was too young then, you see,
As I was only three,
To understand the problem
Of putting up a tree.

-TheElementary, aged eleven

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Very Good Forest

"A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow."
-Charlotte Brontë

Mater and I were side by side in the bed last week; and as the light was turned out I asked if we might go shopping the following day.
There was a long silence. After about a minute, Mater stirred and asked what we had been discussing: she was coasting into slumber and had forgotten the thread of the question.
I repeated it.
"We might go to the forest," she eventually said, to my surprise, given that it was the middle of December and not the most suitable season to be venturing into wooded areas.
I soon gathered that Mater was hovering gently between layers of sleep and that her mind was elsewhere.
I asked, because I needed to know, "why would we go to the forest?"
After a pause in which I thought Mater had finally surrendered the curious conversation and fallen asleep, she answered with a definitive air of confidence that deftly implied my lack of knowledge about the benefits of trees: "well, it might be a very good forest."
I was struck by the happy air of the words, mumbled without a hint of the doubt or trouble that too often permeates the waking hours.
I concluded that indeed it might be a very good forest; and not another word was uttered about it.

Monday, December 22, 2008


"Night is a world lit by itself."
-Antonio Porchia

My brother moved recently to a crumbly farmhouse in the middle of a great green nowhere. He was insistent that I see his home before departing Ireland again; so one cold night we set out from Mater's gate and sank deeper into the countryside.
My sibling was in a fine jocular mood, full of proud delight to show me where he lived, that he had chosen a corner of heavy silence and unsullied beauty.
He narrated, for my benefit, directions that explained the path we were taking and the precise location of the house.
A colossal full moon shimmered over us, closer than we had ever seen it and promising to touch the treetops in an instant.
From the frost-coated window I could distinguish the silhouette of hedges, the curve of fields dark and bare. The road was suddenly impossibly narrow, pocked here and there with dents.
Then my brother said, "turn left at the moon," turning left and laughing, the house emerging ghostly pale from the shadows.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Behind Every Elephant

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

Our neighbourhood library is an antiquated, colossal block of granite brimming with printed words, yet for Spouse and I, one rather notable attraction is not even made of paper.
Habitually we push through the doors of the Romanesque-styled structure, pass under grand arches and rainbow-stained glass, scale the vast stone staircase and pause on the landing to peer out the window, where we observe an elephant. After ensuring the fellow is still out there we continue, satisfied, up the steps and on with our exploration of unread pages.
So far as I know, we are the only individuals aware of the animal's presence. To the eye of other patrons and passers-by there sits the remains of a cannon from a bygone era. They gaze and do not see the rear end of a great lumbering elephant. They find a disused battle weapon of tarnished metal.
One can find little fault with their resourceful wanderings. Libraries are, after all, for the pursuit of creative endeavour and for kindling the imagination.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seeing is Believing

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."
-George Orwell

I had an eye test last week when I was in Ireland, after which it was determined that my sight had significantly improved; partially fulfilling, I suppose, the prophecy of the doctor who told me when I was seven that by the time I turned forty I might not need glasses anymore.
During the procedure I was forced to gaze at my examiner, a pleasant, bespectacled fellow about my age, and he of course was equally obliged to focus on me.
There was something about his face, his head, his hair and his general appearance that unsettled me far more than the actual test did- and having air puffed into one's eyes and having a beam of brilliant light poured onto one's pupils ought to be sufficiently challenging.
Most disconcerting of all, to judge by his baffled expression he seemed somehow to be struck by the same peculiar thought about me; and as neither of us could look elsewhere for the duration, it was an odd encounter.
When the test was finished he left the room. I wiped my watering eye sockets and gathered my belongings.
I met Mater a few moments later and we exited the building after I carefully ensured with the receptionist that my new prescription would be available soon.
Only when we were outside did I notice Mater's own eyes, alight with curiosity and the same bewilderment I had witnessed earlier in my examiner.
"When you came out of the room," Mater gushed, "it was you, but then I saw it wasn't you. Then I looked again and you were wearing a suit and tie. But it wasn't you. The picture was all wrong."
I was aghast.
"Didn't you see it?" she asked. "The hair, the face, the eyes?"
She shivered, remembering.
To my great alarm, I found I understood exactly what Mater meant; and as I shivered a little myself I wondered if the identical other was trembling too.

Friday, December 19, 2008


"The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.”
Hubert H. Humphrey

Illness ought to be seen as a warning rather than a grim finality; as a comma rather than a punctuative full stop.
Last week I sat with my mother in a colourless room and heard, as if from an enormous distance, the delivery of unwanted news.
Cancer, the doctor said softly and sadly to Mater; and for an extraordinary, protracted moment in which nobody drew breath, we did not possess the capacity to believe: that came later.
Mater, who will undergo surgery in a few days, is armoured now with information that previously was somebody else's concern.
She is sheltered by the knowledge that the kindness and humour and compassion of others will be the finest available medicine during the interlude.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Which Emily Dickinson Faints


I dreamed a dream in sepia tones
From which I have just woken
While it lingers in my memory clear
Let me write now, or it be ne’er spoken.
I chanced along a humming street
In a fine and grand old city
When standing there I spied that poet
How elegant! And how pretty!
She spied me same and stepped across
Through the throngs she swept
She touched my sleeve said let us walk.
I was cheerful to accept.
We strolled the town and heard the buzz
Of shoppers as they passed
Some changes in the streets, Emily,
Since you were here the last.
By and by a frown descended
On Miss Emily’s gentle brow
I knew not the worry that caused such
Not the what, or why, or how.
She grew alarmed, and paler still
And clutched her collar tight
She looked for all the world to be
In midst of woeful fright.
What hell is this? She cried to me
What world? What language uttered?
Dead lie the words that I knew well!
At this her eyelids fluttered.
While trying to bring her from the faint
I listened for a spell
And perceived she may indeed be right
That language is not well.
All about me thundered this:
“I mean, it’s like, you know!
Ummm and ummm and yeah, like yeah,
Like no, you know, I dunno!
It’s so like, yeah and so like, duh,
So totally like whatever?”
I sought to rouse Miss Dickinson
And managed this endeavor.
She sat, and said Please let me leave,
I cannot one more minute
Conceive to shuffle through this world
Oh—why did I begin it!
Those are not words, and less than grunts
Language contaminated
This strange tongue and lazy mouth
Can never be translated.
So she left the same way she had come
Into the crowd did melt
I stood in all that baffling sound
My anguish—heartfelt.

And from my dream I woke a sweat
All true! All true! I sobbed.
I had not noticed my good friend Speech
Corrupted, torn and robbed.
If I can stop one mouth from mumbling
One tongue from rolling ‘like’
One lip from spilling ‘you know, nu uh’—
For Language I made a strike.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Going Home

"Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration."
-Charles Dickens

Traditionally, when Mater informs me that she is whitewashing the hob, I gather that somebody of note is about to pay a visit, justifying her furious clean sweep of the house.
Although she happily whitewashed the hob for a guest just recently, she is at it again this weekend for my imminent arrival.
What Mater fails to see, though, is that I will be so preoccupied tucking into homemade sausage, Irish tea and soft, fresh bread, and greeting the familiar feathered chap who will sing out a warm welcome from his cage that I will not even cast a glance at the hob, the floor or indeed any corner, gleaming or otherwise.
Such is the nature of a homecoming: one has seen the proverbial hob at its best and at its worst and one finds that its condition is incidental.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Chasing the Gloom

"We all walk in the dark and each of us must learn to turn on his or her own light."
-Earl Nightingale

We climbed down to the basement at the approach of dusk. It was a November day, one of great heavy clouds, and our friends from Maine were visiting, keen to explore an old California home. The basement, with its half-completed floor and filthy windows and its shadows seething with the past, was my least favourite part of the building. I had grown to love, over time, the rooms above, filled as they were with sunlight and pleasantly charged atmosphere, but once I set foot on the shivering wooden steps to the basement, I might as well have been stepping into another house. There was, alas, no way to avoid it- the washing machine squatted in a corner of the basement and whispered to me frequently: come down, come down.
On laundry day when I stood in the belly of the house, hopping from one foot to the other and working with immeasurable speed to complete my task, I looked anywhere but in the furthest corners, which I knew were layered with thick, black soil, the walls lined by splintery shelves scattered with abandoned artifacts. The basement's oppressive silence shrouded the most incandescent afternoon.
Spouse had not arrived home from work when I took my friend and her husband downstairs for a brief tour of the gloomy space. The air felt so much lighter as soon as it pulsated with friendly chatter and it helped to have somebody there more afraid than I. If that person happened to be a man of broad shoulder and long hair whose height exceeded six feet then I was, inexplicably, further emboldened.
He was wary of confrontation with eight-legged creatures burrowed in the ceiling and walls, with whatever living thing he might accidentally disturb, but equally uneasy at the prospect of meeting something dead and ghostly.
We all trembled a little, made haste in our exploration and concluded the tour. I began ascending the stairs first- to lead the way, one must understand, as a proper host ought to do, an act utterly unrelated to the increasing sensation of doom that prickled my heart.
A howl, that of a woman, split the basement's quietude asunder with its ferocity.
I hovered on the creaking step, my skin already cold as midnight, but I could glimpse nothing at all through the grey mantle of dust that the commotion had unsettled.
I would not, I vowed, let anything- not phantom, not mouse- frighten my dear friend, and I flew from the stairs and raced to her in blind panic, my mouth so dry it seemed filled with ancient dust.
My friend, when I reached her, was not troubled. She was bent over in breathless amusement watching her husband slap a spider from his shoulder with an insistent violence and determination.
She was laughing not at the insect-riddled plight of an unfortunate fellow, but at a tall, adult man swiping his own tail of hair from his shoulder in unconcealed terror, leaping about in attempts to disengage it from his person, and issuing forth a fractious, high-pitched shriek that I am certain sent every being, living or dead, fleeing from the underground hollow of the house.
The very shadows that haunted the basement must have scuttled away. I never, after that, had any trouble venturing down to do the laundry- because the images I was left with and the imaginative pieces I conjured were of the very best sort.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What Was Left

"We do not remember days; we remember moments."
-Cesare Pavese

Seven years ago when I was still just a curious ink-scribble of a name to Spouse, he attended the birthday celebration of a very good friend. The friend turned forty and at the conclusion of the elaborate party each guest was presented with a small bottle of wine emblazoned with an image of the friend as a beaming infant.
Last weekend Spouse and I opened the bottle and consumed the contents. Time had steamed onward in the interim: the friend graduated to other birthdays, to another country. I imagine that Spouse was the sole guest clinging to a remnant of the occasion- the other bottles drained and discarded, the taste vanished and forgotten long ago.
With each sip of the tinted liquid we were both transported. We tasted the party. It was not consigned to the irretrievable, inconsolable past so long as the wine flowed from the glass to our lips, so long as the aroma possessed the ability to overwhelm the senses, so long as we inhaled untainted fragments of an evening that belonged to another era of our lives.
Spouse's clock wound back to where the friend had just turned forty; to where the house was spilling over with friends; back to when Spouse's home was nestled in the foothills of great, grand mountains in Northern California and once unimaginable dreams were being realised daily.
My own memories were entangled in what I might have been involved in- did I work in the restaurant that night? Did I sit up late watching television? Was I engrossed in a book, or composing a letter? I wondered: what book, and of what did I write?
I reflected quietly on a party that had not concerned me in any way, while Spouse mused on an event he recalled with deep fondness.
The goblet ran dry; the remains of the party trickled away though we had kept time at bay for seven years, hauling the bottle from state to state and house to house whenever our address changed, until we decided to drink, and appreciate what was left.
We had often considered that the bottle might get lost or shattered in the process of moving and that we ought to simply swallow the wine and exhaust the supply; but the notion was at odds with the human desire to linger a while over the happiest of memories.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Live in Hope

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
-Oscar Wilde

I was approached this afternoon by a young man who vaulted off a bus, a question blazing on his face. The question was for me, as presumably I bore the look of somebody who knows the innards of the bus and train service schedule.
"Excuse me- I need to get back to Boston."
There was a perceptible degree of stress in the blunt statement. For the sake of convenience and clarity I added the question mark myself and pointed in the direction of the enormous building that loomed behind us.
"You should probably take a train," I offered sagely, disguising, I hoped, the fact that my vast knowledge was recently acquired.
"Go through that building to the train station. There's an information desk where they sell tickets, and the gate to the trains is on the right. I'm sure the lady at the counter would tell you the best way to get to Boston."
It was all very well and good, or so I hoped, but after he thanked me graciously he added a note of potential significance.
"I have no money. Will they give me a pass, do you think?"
It was not my position to deny or grant the would-be traveller a passage to Boston. The fellow was rather well dressed, spoke decently and appeared reasonable enough so as not to alarm me but his revelation slapped me into a momentary lapse of coherent thought. My answer arrived not swiftly but on the fringe of a graceless stutter.
"I don't know. But you could ask them."
He thanked me again, and jogged toward the station building with a confident bounce.
That was several hours ago, and I continue to envision one of two possible scenarios unfolding in the meantime. Either he has been forced to set up camp in the station, is stranded in misery and has through sheer boredom and penniless desperation read the schedules so often he now can recite them by heart; or his optimism has been fruitful, the world is a better place than I imagined, and he reached home before I fashioned his story into words.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I Saw You First

“Play has been man's most useful preoccupation.”
-Frank Caplan

Whenever I meet Mater at an airport, no matter which one of us is arriving, I prefer to see her before she sees me.
On one such occasion last year Spouse and I reached the airport a little later than intended and glimpsed, by chance, a freshly-landed Mater pressed into a corner. Her back was turned to us and she was happily engaged using a public telephone.
My cell phone soon rang in response; but when we exchanged greetings I never mentioned that I was within sight. I said, instead, as my feet crept me inch by inch toward her, that we were in the car, a good twenty minutes from the airport and miserably embroiled in a traffic jam.
Mater replaced the receiver, turned around to explore the airport, and bumped into two people whose grinning, triumphant faces were shockingly familiar to those she had been promised were far away.
The conquest to see Mater before she saw me- that began six years ago when she made her first visit to California, when she fortuitously saw Spouse and I scanning the crowds. She shuffled soundlessly up behind us, put a weary traveller's hand on my shoulder and breathed into my ear: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
I wager I leaped about a foot into the air at the fright of a stranger's whisper. I have since made every attempt to be victorious in my endeavours but it depends entirely on the particular airport and the time of day at which one lands.
I will be boarding a plane to Ireland next week; by hook or by crook I fully intend to try the Dr. Livingstone trick on my unsuspecting mother. Unsuspecting, I presume.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tea and Progress

"What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance."
-Henry Havelock Ellis

The teapot: a humble, simple implement that has faithfully served humanity's needs for hundreds of years. An elementary instrument for a straightforward operation, it has needed little adjustment or alteration through the ages.
But we went this weekend to a department store and found that some clever fellow had decided to improve it.
Spouse and I wandered over to one charming little teapot. Drawn by the exorbitant price tag that piqued our curiosity, we paused to examine the decorative and functional qualities of a designer item.
Spouse made an effort to wrest the lid from the top but found himself struggling and grappling with the flimsy porcelain disc.
We were on the verge of reaching the conclusion that the teapot must in fact be bolted, and I was looking all about for an assistant who might have such a key on their person, when Spouse found success and we were able to peer at last into the depths of the vessel.
Much to our disappointment after all the effort to get a glimpse, it looked like a perfectly ordinary teapot and we soon decided to get on with the remainder of our browsing.
Spouse tried to position the top back onto the teapot but it would not fit into place. There was a distinct protrusion on the lid that required precise alignment with a notch on the cusp of the container and a thirsty person could neither open nor close the teapot without first getting the measure of where the two pieces met.
I had never seen such an intricate system inside a teapot, nor one so utterly useless.
The architect presumably thought that the convoluted arrangement was vital to the progress of mankind, that the classic tea dispenser- along with the notion of being able to pour one's tea while it was still piping hot- ought to be a notion of the past. The change was not efficient: deviation from the established style had failed to contribute positively to the evolution of the teapot and had, in fact, brought trouble to the business of making tea where trouble had not previously existed.
Spouse, an engineer, spent a whole minute involved in a battle to open and close the teapot.
I, a notorious tea drinker and user of a great variety of teapots over the years, wondered why anybody would bother to fix an item not in need of mending; and I went on my way.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Out The Window

"One of the virtues of being very young is that you don't let the facts get in the way of your imagination."
-Sam Levenson

In our younger days my brother and I treated the back of Mater's car as a slide in a playground. On sunny days we would climb atop the car from the front, crawl across the roof and skim down the sloped posterior to start the fun all over again. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden- but Mater's eye was typically elsewhere and we never came to any harm.
One day long after my sibling left that childhood activity behind, I decided to venture onto the makeshift slide for a few entertaining solitary rounds.
As I propelled myself off the roof and began my happy descent, I became aware of a commotion behind me. There was a hollow thump as though an elephant had broken loose from a nearby field and had stamped his mighty foot in a fury; then, as though the same fellow had ruptured one thousand balloons out of spite, there volleyed forth a cluster of tiny, pinpoint bursts of noise alternated with claps of thunder.
My own feet hit the ground and I turned, curious, only to find myself wondering where the car's back window had disappeared to. It was not in its usual place tucked inside the window frame- and I ought to know as I had moments earlier skidded over its slick surface.
All about my feet were tragic remnants. The ground was coated with diamond slivers once part of that most essential of vehicle components: one that I had to replace with my own pocket money, and one that I never again considered a toy.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Doctor Who

"The world only goes round by misunderstanding."
-Charles Baudelaire

Spouse, in his familiar fine handwriting, embarked on constructing a list of tasks to do for this day. When he finally relinquished the pen there were words everywhere, spilling over the fringe of the page as though some wayward items were scrambling to escape, and as a result of limited space Spouse's elegant penmanship became a struggle to maintain. One of the last lines on the list was a note to call our family physician, Dr. Patil.
Upon returning later, Spouse was wholly incapable of deciphering what a certain scribble indicated.
When much postulating shed light on the matter, he was forced to shatter my concentration- I was immersed in a novel and far from lists and assignments- to relate his confusion.
"I wondered," said a much relieved Spouse, "why I had written that we were supposed to call Dr. Phil!"
The latter being a television personality and celebrity psychologist, one naturally speculates about any advice that might be dispensed to a fellow rendered unable to read his own writing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Corner Kindness

"The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines."
-Charles Kuralt

"I have a bit of Irish in me," a small-framed elderly lady chattered as I waited this afternoon for a bus. I had been alone just before she reached the corner and I was grateful for her company.
She expanded on her Irish roots by citing two places in Ireland from which her family had originated, and by extracting with barely concealed pride a selection of CDs from a canvas sack.
"I just went to the library- look!"
I was delighted when she wielded albums by three well-known Irish musical entertainers and I suspect she was pleased to show proof of her bond with my homeland.
I too had been to the library, and the tower of pages I gripped caused my arms to ache in that exhilarating way of unread books.
After we exchanged more banter about Ireland and music and the bus service, the subject turned to Thanksgiving and my plans.
When I explained that Spouse and I had intended to visit our friends in Northern Maine- so far north that one notices road signs for Canada- and that our weekend had lamentably been altered by the impending shivery storms that were advancing across the land, she was very sorry indeed.
"Oh, if I'd known, I would have invited you."
She would be spending Thanksgiving at somebody else's home and seemed genuinely grieved that Spouse and I were prepared to spend the day alone; with our awareness of the ominous weather indications it would be too risky to attempt that long journey.
Her sincerity was stirring and I made it clear that her words and her kindly instinct were sufficient to better our Thanksgiving holiday.
Our bus routes eventually took us on our respective ways, both of us weighed down with reading material and music and buoyed by the gratifying swell of good grace that follows an unexpected invitation and a chance crossing of two cultures.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Covering Our Tracks

"Striving to better, oft we mar what's well."
-William Shakespeare

We were searching for lunch. Spouse and I were famished, we were passing through the area and there was not a moment to be spared searching for a restaurant. We found a supermarket, one of appropriate quality for two hungry souls willing to forsake dining at a restaurant in order to eat sooner.
It happened several years ago but I remember how we followed the aroma of fresh, homemade soup until we found four varieties contained inside enormous metal cauldrons.
Customers were to serve themselves, so Spouse prised a lid from one of the steaming pots and filled the largest paper container with our choice of tomato soup. Judging by the weight, we were certain that one portion would be sufficient for both of us.
We intended to sit at a little cafeteria next to the soup station. Spouse clutched the cup that held our lunch as he gingerly placed the cover back onto the main soup receptacle.
It was like molten metal, and wet from the steam, so it was no wonder that Spouse's fingers slipped ever so slightly in attempts to put the lid on properly. It landed on the pot but it did not sit correctly and left a gap, so that air or insects or any foreign objects could get inside the soup and make life miserable for the next unfortunate customer.
That was my thought as I reached out- after all, I had two free hands- and gripped the edge of the lid with my fingers, hoping to draw the lid perfectly over the opening.
It was still like molten metal and still wet from the steam and it caused me a degree of pain so that I was forced to drop the lid from a height of some inches.
The margin had widened and the lid was more askew than before.
Whatever creatures might have been able to get in a moment earlier now could bring their whole family along. Spouse urged that we let it go, that it was only a question of millimetres and that we ought to eat our lunch while it was hot.
I was having none of that and I took hold of the lid once more, with a hint of fury, with the full intention of setting that lid on tightly.
It was still like molten metal, yes, and still wet from the steam and it emitted its own rays of fury toward my injured digits. When I dropped the lid again I saw that Spouse had probably been right to suggest when he did that we give up- for now the cover was more off than on, a half moon segment of the lid teetering over the edge of the pot, resembling some sort of dreadful, off-kilter eclipse.
Spouse tried to tell me to leave it alone, that we ought to get out of there, but his words were muffled by laughter which rattled the cup he still held.
Spouse found it hysterical but I was responsible for the matter: I could not stroll away leaving the soup urn exposed.
I gave Spouse a glare of steely determination and made a final effort to right the wrong I had done.
The molten lid with its beads of steam fell into the soup pot and sank altogether before a curved edge mercifully popped up, gasping for breath and demanding to be rescued.
I looked all about me, but it seemed nobody had witnessed the sight.
"I have to," I said to Spouse when his aghast expression indicated he suspected what I would do next. By that time I had joined in with Spouse's waves of hysterics and I could hardly see because my eyes were overflowing with water.
Perhaps due to the laughter, my mind was on a level where pain was no longer an obstacle, and I plunged my hand into the pot, caught the bit of metal I could see, extracted the lid from the murky depths and and flung it over the vessel where it landed with a splatter and dribbled tomato soup down the sides.
"Let's run now," I suggested to Spouse, and we ran. We paid for our soup and ran past the cafeteria and across the parking lot and straight to our car where we huddled and hid and ate tomato soup and wished to be invisible when the next customer approached the soup counter, reeled backwards in disgust and wondered what sort of disaster had taken place.
I had only wanted it to be right but I got it all wrong.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mrs. Brown's Handbag

“I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”
-C.S. Lewis

When she was a child my mother became the victim of sunstroke and subsequently was racked with a ghastly fever. In the middle of it all a familiar neighbour called in to extend afternoon greetings.
Strictly speaking, Mrs. Brown did not actually visit the house or attend the bedroom, but to Mater's tormented, delusional eye that did not matter a whit. There was the woman from down the road perched with an air of benevolence on the edge of the bed, embracing a handbag. Being no ordinary vision, it was no commonplace handbag; and later, when Mater was lucid again, she described the outlandish accessory to anybody that would lend an ear.
The item was colossal. It was more vast than any handbag had reason to be and it obscured more than half of the tiny woman's figure.
The scene was a pronounced indication that all was not right. Since succumbing to the illness the junctures of time had been illustrated by a collection of indiscriminate jumbled odds and ends. Mater's bewilderment was punctuated by the sight of Mrs. Brown's grotesque handbag, for reasons likely pertaining to Mater's earnest desire to possess a handbag of her own. The overemphasised image of a favourite object was one of such startling absurdity that it prompted the ailing child to gather her senses and embark on the return journey to reality.
Mater's fever dwindled to an insignificant point and evaporated, but a predilection for handbags is still kindled today like a warm remnant inside her. She routinely wanders over to the store shelves that house them, wishing to be the owner of this one, examining that one.
Mrs. Brown has become a character of the past but Mater is drawn to handbags and to the promise of new beginnings that empty vessels convey.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


"In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost."
-Anne Sophie Swetchine

In taking advantage of the local bus service, as I have been of late, I expected to stumble upon characters and encounters of such number that I would have little time to assemble the sketches into words.
I have found those, of course: if one is indeed searching, intricate tales of human existence will be identified on every corner.
Conversely though, I find I am also being reminded of other, long-ago bus rides I underwent or endured or delighted in.
I wrote a lot of letters when I was a teenager, whole bundles of missives to people near and far.
Kathleen was almost blind, scratching out a living on a farm she shared with her son. She was a widow in her eighties. I first saw her name in a local Irish magazine: she was looking for the words of a tune she had known eons ago in her girlhood. I knew the lyrics but I possessed as well a recording of the song, and I posted her a copy of both.
I had not known she was blind. Neither had I expected to hear from her.
She wrote a brimming, enthused note in a hand that trembled, with a pen that would not obey its frail owner. We wrote back and forth to one another for a year or two, she mentioning frequently the joy of playing the song over and over as though the years had left no mark.
At length, we both thought that I might visit. She lived quite north of me in Ireland and I was readily set for adventures.
Mater bade me farewell, resigned to being burdened with a daughter that would embark alone on a bus journey of seven hours in order to emerge onto a landscape of immeasurable sparsity and meet an old lady whose brief query had been printed in the Wanted section of an obscure magazine.
Kathleen's son was assigned to collect me in his car. As the bus drew near to the region I grew nervous, clutching a novel I was paying scant attention to, watching tensely out of the window for any sign that I ought to get off the bus. Their home was a good many miles out of town and I was instructed to arrive in a little village whose signposts were battered and useful only for long-time locals who did not depend upon them.
Despite my diligence, I became distracted and when I raised my head again I saw that the bus was in the heart of a village- had been, in fact, for some moments- and was about to continue on its way.
In a panic, I gathered my belongings, called out to the driver to stop, scrambled to my feet and leaped off the bus.
The cough and splutter of the bus dwindled gradually away, and when there was nothing but a faint rumble to distinguish the carriage I had been cornered in for hours, I understood to my great alarm that I was altogether in the wrong village and that I had no notion of what direction to begin striding in.
After an urgent recalling of my momentarily-lost wits, I noted that the village I sought was a considerable three miles away.
Worst, Kathleen's son would be watching the bus as it turned into the village in a few minutes, and I would not be on it. He would not, however, know that I would not be on it because he also did not know what I looked like and presumably he would ask each and every young lady if she happened to be me, until at last, after startling enough young ladies, he would establish that I was not anywhere.
That was an era before I possessed a cell phone. I was lost hundreds of miles from home, several miles from my unfamiliar host, already causing untold trouble and anxiety to an old woman on the verge of blindness and her obliging offspring.
If only, I toiled furiously in my head, I had stayed on the bus, had been more patient and observant, I would not be in such a sorry pickle.
Pickled I was, and I was reduced, in the end, to knocking on the door of the nearest house, choking back my tears and pleading to use the telephone.
After I dialled the number and got no response, I remembered that the entire household of two was waiting at the bus stop.
The lady must have intuitively taken into account my struggle to keep from breaking into floods of tears, for she made an offer so kind it rendered me speechless.
"I'll drive you there," she said, putting away her vacuum cleaner, slipping on her jacket, and bidding me to follow her out the door.
I was astonished, but not so much that I refused the suggestion.
I offered money along the way, but the dear lady would not take a penny. She set me down in the village square and wished me well. Shortly afterward, I made a desperate call from a public telephone box which at last found Kathleen and her son fretting, wringing their broken hearts about how to inform my mother that I had tragically vanished at a mysterious point between her house and theirs.
The ruffles of my tortured arrival were smoothed over as soon as the kettle was set to boil on the stove.
Kathleen and I sat at her well-worn kitchen table for most of the weekend, drinking tea and rummaging through ancient biscuit tins that held yellowed letters and brittle photographs, treasures and fragments of another age. One could not quantify the shared solace and wonder we found in exchanging bits and pieces of our two lives that might have been considered to have little in common.
So solitary and lonesome was daily life for the old woman and her son that the farmhouse rarely saw a passing visitor. A powdery lane of narrow proportions trickled through their land, hemmed with fiery brambles, entwining its way out of a secluded green corner where the years lapsed without haste and where societal progress was reluctant to provide its signature.
The visit was completed in two days, when I had to return to my job as a waitress, and it never happened that I saw Kathleen again.
We continued to write to one another for a time until her last letter reached me: it told in handwriting I could scarcely recognise that she had fallen ill, suffering a stroke.
I cannot think of my gentle, welcoming penpal without simultaneously evoking glimpses of the chaos I set in motion and the stranger that helped me to undo it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Catching a Bus

“Don't wait. The time will never be just right.”
-Napoleon Hill

Victorian Christmas, they call it: a week-long festival to brighten the dullest of December days. Spouse and I gladly indulged in it for each year that we lived in our cherished small town in California. It would have become a tradition, eventually, but we moved away.
It was necessary for us to take a special shuttle bus from our house to the heart of the neighbouring city: parking was prohibited, as the local organisers closed off the streets to set up the various music stages and the tantalising snack stalls and to make way for the costumed carol singers.
Our bus driver, who I encountered often on my regular bus travels, spoke rapidly in clipped and broken English. Hardly anybody knew what he was saying but his incessant chattering was a pleasant way to commence such an occasion.
We determined that we would take the very last bus home, which would arrive on the corner at midnight.
Off we went to roam around. The city looked altogether altered at dusk, with not a vehicle to be seen, hundreds of people milling about trying their best to keep warm under a sky that threatened to cast snow.
We munched on some smoked almonds, and followed them with a sumptuous, melting steak sandwich from a street vendor. We stood nearby as local bands struck up and entertained at no cost to us. The quiet city had been transformed into a collection of streets that breathed and hummed with enchantment.
The two of us were ready to go home shortly before the last bus was due; the streets were still brimming with people but we had the possibility of returning on another night before the festival concluded.
Spouse and I were on our way up the hill to meet the bus when I, quite simply, got a cramp in my foot. I was certain that somebody had set my poor appendage alight and then tried to pull it off like one would a shoe. I could not move or balance properly, and breathing was suddenly a luxury. Spouse did not know what to do. If his car were nearby, he would rush and fetch it, and collect me on the way back. We were, however, passengers of public transport and our options were limited.
I hoped that we had some time to spare before the bus appeared, so that I might recover just enough to reach the bus stop. What a pity that the bus would not be rolling downhill toward us to make the situation a little easier.
The bus, alas, appeared on the brow of the hill just as I was urging it not to, and it came to a convenient halt for those patrons without cramp who had succeeded in reaching the corner on time.
Spouse thought of asking the bus driver to wait for me, but then we remembered that the fellow's English was pitifully limited to ordinary, routine phrases, none of which included "my wife, who is at the bottom of the hill down there, has a dreadful pain in her foot and this is the last bus of the evening- what can we do?"
I worried that he might misunderstand and roll away up the road with Spouse on board.
I am reluctant to ever miss a bus. As a streak of white hot pain stoked my foot without mercy, I looked up at Spouse and said, "I don't think we can wait. What if we just run for the bus?"
He thought I was delirious. So did I, for a spell.
But we ran anyhow, just on the off-chance that it turned out to be a good idea. If the driver were to take off before we got there, my plan was a rudimentary one: I would lay down in the middle of the road and go to sleep until somebody, anybody, brought a car.
It did not come to that: I found, oddly, that I could not walk, but I could run, and I could catch a bus when it was required. I vaguely recall floating up the hill, arm in arm with Spouse, drawing ever closer to the waiting headlights, swallowing the pain and pushing it into a deep drawer just long enough to get me seated on the bus.
I think the solution lay in the fact that strolling offered too much time to think about the distance and the pain and the scenario of becoming stranded, while sprinting ensured that the whole matter would soon be resolved.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Long Wait

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
-Emily Dickinson

I encountered a man at a bus stop the other day. He ignited a conversation out of thin air and a desire to address somebody. The fellow's stories revolved mostly around his wife, a pleasant lady who was next to him in a wheelchair, and a job he had held long ago. We and other huddled passengers shivered together in the bus shelter as the wind whipped in, invaded our bones and appeared to slow down the hands on the clock tower that rose out of the rooftops and out of the November shadows.
To nobody in particular, the fellow told that he had, in his lifetime, been declared dead on three occasions. During the most recent experience- a duration of five minutes- his wife was informed of the tragedy.
This man had been dismissed from the world by the resigned wave of a doctor's hand. Momentarily he had been waved back in, by reason of a phenomenal alteration in his status, to tell later his meandering tales to random strangers, of which not one uttered another comment about the chill or the interminable wait for the bus.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To Absolve the Gerbils

"I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate."
-Vincent van Gogh

"They ought to have known better," was Mater's claim regarding the recent escapade of the gerbils she was supposed to be looking after.
"But you left a door open!" I countered, defending those poor fellows as best I could.
Mater was insistent: "they should have known not to leave the cage."
I stood firm.
The gerbils had been sure of only a few things in their lives: food, water, each other, and the walls that enclosed them all.
Then Mater came along and took away one of their walls.
They did not suspect that they had entered a prohibited zone; did not, I wager, devote too much time to wondering about why and how their running space had all of a sudden expanded. They were carrying out their usual routine and all of a sudden found themselves astray between the imposing legs of gigantic furniture, their familiar plastic toys nowhere in sight. They left the remaining siblings behind in the second, secured cage; they were separated from family members that could not accompany them on the long, bewildering journey around the room.
Yes, Mater took away their walls, their sanctuary, obscured the rules and erased the boundaries they were forbidden to cross.
I started to take local buses recently, and I know all too well what it means to err, to miss one bramble-covered stop sign and find oneself in places unexpected and unplanned, stranded and confused, wondering how to get back again. And, quite unlike the gerbils, I do not have to do battle with enormous chairs and towering tables.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Babysitter

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."
-Anatole France

This week my brother and his significant other were travelling outside the country. Mater and my cousin obliged them by tending to a family of five gerbils. They agreed to be caretakers, to be suitably respectful of their furry charges, feeding them regularly; but they were not inclined to exhibit much intimate affection for the little fellows.
When I was last at home in Ireland, and a female rat came to stay with us for a week in similar circumstances, I talked to her, promised that her owners would be coming back soon, reassured her that I was a friend, to the extent that I missed her when she went home again.
I could not expect that my mother would provide the same level of attention: she is reluctant to dwell too much on animals and their habits and her single task was merely to ensure the gerbils' safety and physical well-being. Curing their homesickness was not part of Mater's agenda.
All was going well until last evening when Mater, prior to departing for the airport to pick up the pets' human parents, entered the zoo-room and found not one but two gerbils inspecting her shoes, dashing about and generally running amok. Mater could see, from her frozen position in the doorway, that the cage door had been left open and so, of course, the curious creatures took the obvious path.
Mater's feet were welded to the carpet as the gerbils raced this way and that and all around.
Between being not sure at all how to begin catching the gerbils, and fearfully wondering how she would tell their owners about the disaster, Mater was suspended for a time in a frame of inner hysteria that did not manifest itself in physical expression.
She at last let out a roar for my cousin, a bellow that could be heard over the fields.
He came running, but the would-be hero reeled in astonishment when his grim task was revealed.
Mater took the opportunity to make that most essential drive to the airport and was out the door in a flash, leaving my cousin on his knees, scrambling around for the precious, wayward pets.
They were caught, eventually. Mater is an honest soul and told the resolved tale as soon as the passengers met her at the airport.
"Don't worry," Mater was told in jest, "you aren't fired from the job!"
I suspect that Mater, who was still trembling and traumatised, might have liked to hear otherwise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Leaf

"The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship."
-William Blake

"Take a picture, quickly!" Spouse urged. He was occupied driving the car. Rushed, I scrambled for my backpack, reached inside for the camera, untangled it, took off the lens cap, switched the camera on and aimed it at the car's side mirror, at the red, seven-pronged leaf plastered to the glass.
I turned the camera this way and that, not certain that the angle or the lighting were perfect. I took a picture eventually and adjusted the camera in hopes of taking another.
But when I lifted my eyes to the mirror, the leaf had vanished.
Less than two seconds had passed by but the leaf had been tugged by the wind and the force of the car's speed, and off it went, spiralling out of our sight forever. Even as I took the lone photograph the leaf must have been on the verge of tearing away, and there I was worrying about capturing the image properly. I very nearly lost the opportunity altogether.
The camera would not, on a typical day, have been in our possession; but we were on our way to meet two people for the first time: Beth, whose stories I read and relish, and her husband Charlie, and it was not, then, an ordinary excursion.
Over the years I have had ample occasion to meet friends I had previously only encountered through their written words, or a friendly gift package or a telephone call.
I have learned that it is one thing to exchange words from the obscurity of a computer, quite another to venture out and share oneself a little more.
As we sped toward the restaurant my restlessness set in, and I thought of times I had waited at airports for a face not quite familiar to me, of how exhilarated and timid and nervous and thrilled I grew as the precise moment for meeting approached. Part of that tension arises from the hope of improving a friendship, that in revealing oneself beyond the pen, so to speak, one might find that on first meeting a person one already knows, the lines become ever more blurred and it happens that the self-doubt was for nothing.
So it happened yesterday, when Spouse and I reached the restaurant. Any observant soul watching the four individuals laughing and telling stories and commenting on the food might think they had all known each other for years on end, and to judge by the rapport and comfort that stirred Spouse and I as we experienced the fine company of Beth and Charlie, it felt that way too.
I suspect that the leaf, as it twirled and leaped and danced into the sky like a pointed flame, considered that its work was done: reminding me gently about taking opportunities, and being bold enough to trust in adventures, in the moment and in the little joys that might lie around the corner.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Peppermints and Tissues

"Don't laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own."
-Logan Pearsall Smith

I offered my mother the last peppermint in the package; she declined. I was six. We were waiting for my brother to finish his hour in a children's club and there was nothing to do other than suck peppermints and anxiously study the front doors of the building.
As soon as I deposited the last peppermint into my mouth, Mater decided that she would like one after all.
From her regal position in the driver's seat, Mater could not initially see the torn twist of useless paper I grasped, nor my bulging cheeks, nor my horrified face.
Being overly sensitive, and far too sure of Mater's heartbreak if I said she could not have what she wanted, I said that I was very sorry, then I cried a little, and then I looked around for a resolution.
I discovered some clean white tissue paper in the pocket of my jacket. I tore a piece off and offered it mutely. She was bewildered, but hesitantly took it in her hand and pretended that all was well, that I had, after all, some peppermints left. We went through the motions of giving and receiving, and it worked, but superficially. I felt miserable that I had not been able to give Mater- who never asked for anything- what she requested, and in spite of my pitiful attempts to make up for the loss I never quite was able to renounce the memory.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Through a Window

“Same old slippers,
Same old rice,
Same old glimpse of paradise.”

-William James Lampton

We drove some weeks ago past a neighbouring apartment, and I chanced to look up at a window that was without curtains or shade of any sort.
I registered, among the garish yellow beam of a bulb, the outline of an oblong object: a guitar. The instrument was set upright on an armchair; the chair was pushed against the window frame, its back facing the street, so that only the neck and upper portion of the guitar were on display, rising from the shadows.
The scene seemed suspended, just long enough for me to witness it perfectly, even as we sped onward.
That unseen fellow plays guitar.
That was the logical conclusion to arrive at.
I know something about the person in that apartment, I thought confidently, before the endless possibilities flew forth and I was forced to accept that I knew nothing about the matter.
Maybe he was an expert in repairing guitars, mending the instrument for a customer or a friend, either making a perfectly fine and comfortable living or preparing to earn dinner with the proceeds.
Maybe it had recently been bequeathed by a deceased family member, rendering the new owner with a musical burden and much guilt about precisely what to do with it.
Maybe it was a stolen guitar, robbed in the night, leaving some callous-fingered soul out there desperately grieving the loss.
Maybe it was a gift for an aspiring songwriter, not yet delivered because the giver was uncertain how to present such an awkward shape.
I ruminated on many such notions long after the fact: I had only a moment to see before I continued on to my own, known life, to a living room which is without an armchair, to windows which are shaded, to a home which differs greatly in physical appearance from that half-seen corner.
I was compelled to stare at that window. It offered the most subtle of glimpses into a world not my own, at once comforting and lonesome, a reminder that people everywhere are the same though they take drastically varied directions, and leaving us to guess at the myriad branches of possibility, most of which we will never come to know.
It is the blunt unfamiliarity that strikes the senses and unsettles the viewer, not the routines or the thoughts or the essence of lives.

Friday, November 14, 2008


"Men! The only animal in the world to fear."
-D.H. Lawrence

I was cleaning when I discovered a cobweb strung across the handle of the back door. I was not amused- squeamish as I am about the sticky grey strands- but ever more disgruntled when I observed the owner of the establishment settled comfortably into the middle of it.
She was not alone: the white lump tucked into the other end of the cobweb alerted me to the possibility of many more owners and many more establishments in the not too distant future.
I could not destroy the cobweb with both mother and family nesting inside. I could not fathom how to go about dismantling the lives of spiders. Ordinarily, in a panic and incoherent frenzy, I would produce the vacuum cleaner and erase all trace of whatever was darting around.
This time, strangely, the prospect of hundreds of hairy creatures scurrying about the house was weighed evenly with the notion of exterminating the eggs with an inanimate household appliance. Past experience assured me that refusing to do the former would ensure that someday, in attempting to put my foot into a shoe without checking for occupants, I might experience regret at sparing the cobweb from doom.
What I wanted was to put the lot of them outside in the open air, but the cobweb was dangling across the threshold. Even if I could have propelled myself to touch the door and slide it open, the web would tear asunder, the mother would flee to secret corners, and none of us would be any the better for the ensuing chaos.
I rolled up my proverbial sleeves for a most delicate operation, ignoring the goosebumps and the repulsion and the compulsion to run away. I acquired a cardboard box, emptied it of my favourite teabags, caught my breath.
"Don't move," I said. Perhaps I was speaking to the spider. Perhaps I was delirious with horror. Perhaps the advice was intended for my shivering self.
I held the box underneath the cobweb, urging, for the good of us all, the mother to remain calm while her habitat was transferred.
The cobweb wobbled lightly as the box approached. The spider flexed her long legs, drew herself to full size, raced across the cobweb before I quite knew what was happening, and threw herself bodily on top of the eggs, comforting and protecting the unseen creatures from whatever harm she imagined was about to befall her family. Seeing her cover the eggs with all she possessed, I felt some unfamiliar twinge rise inside me, and a reassurance that it was the proper thing to do.
There she stayed, perfectly still so that the business of moving her and the eggs to the cardboard box went far smoother than I had dared to hope. Once the door was ajar I set the box on the porch, weighing it down with two large stones. The mother wasted no time in drawing the egg up to the furthest corner of the box, where she wound a fresh cobweb around the sphere and wove another curtain to shield them from the elements of weather and from interfering, intolerant humans.
Beyond one week of checking on the spiders' progress, I never was able to ascertain if any of them survived. One day they simply had vanished from the porch.
To be dragged into a vacuum cleaner would have been certain death, slow and cruel. Setting them on the porch gave them a half-chance at least. Sometimes one just has to hope the right thing was done, regardless of the eventual outcome.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Elfin Art

"Art is the triumph over chaos."
-John Cheever

I am particular about attention to minute detail, and for that reason I have long harboured a fascination for dollhouses. I passed endless hours as a child making miniature rolling pins, toilet rolls, pillows and rugs and guiding them into their respective parts of the wooden house I tended to. There was rarely an opportunity to buy any articles for dollhouses, so I was content to fashion them instead from discarded items I salvaged from Mater.
Once, on a whim to decorate the little living room walls, I thumbed through an art magazine and selected, at random, one scene reduced to dainty, tiny form. I carefully cut out the picture- which I now know to be one of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer's most esteemed works- and pasted it to the cardboard wall. It was just the right scale to resemble a painting in a real house, and I was immensely pleased with my young self.
There was no shortage of surprise when some months later I happened upon a jumble of dollhouse fixtures in a sale and found that very same picture: it was framed perfectly and ready to be mounted onto the wall of a miniature house. I had not known such things existed, that one could purchase little elfin art to further the design of a dollhouse.
I concluded that my taste in fine arts was matched only by another's excellent taste in dollhouse design, wherein the two collided in a rare moment of good fortune.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Adventures On a Bus (1)

"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page."
-Saint Augustine

I am a new passenger to the local bus service, and in attempting to understand how it works, mistakes must be made, intended stops must be missed and haste to arrive must be postponed.
Once I established that the bus would do another loop of the entire city and surrounding area before circling back to the library I had been looking for, I struck up a conversation with the bus driver, who had been vaguely wondering where the lone rider imagined she was travelling to.
I soon learned of his plans to visit Ireland next year; that he is about to retire; that he would like to spend at least a month of his time travelling the country and exploring the castles and landscapes.
Two weeks, he said, was not enough. It would indeed be expensive, but it was to mark the end of his long career and he considered that he would be free to experience the adventure of a lifetime. I agreed with his sentiment. Money ought not to be an object when embarking on retirement; it is the most sensitive of occasions when a fellow weighs the past with what is left to come and wonders what else might have been.
He was most enthused about seeing Ireland through the eyes of a former bus driver, and encouraged by the thought of being taken about the countryside as a passenger, as one who had earned the right to relinquish the steering wheel.
I refrained, but I might have told him that the most refreshing way to see a country and to get to know the inhabitants was as simple as accidentally missing one's stop. There is nothing quite like it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Eleventh Hour

"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."
-Albert Einstein

Life has a most peculiar way of flinging various people into our path- sadly without the exception of those we would much prefer to steer clear of.
Most recently, I spent fourteen consecutive months in Ireland, and on each trip with Mater to the nearest village I would keep a wary eye for a neighbour that grated, albeit unwittingly, on the nerves, one whom I had not encountered in many years- due, mostly, to my being far away in another country and thereby almost out of earshot.
It is a tedious business to deal with neighbours who wish to know all the affairs of those around them while continuing to reveal none of their own.
During my final twelve hours before taking flight and leaving home again, I was gathering, with Mater, some last-minute items from the store when there resounded a shrill cry from across the street: "Well! As I live and breathe!"
I seethed, I shivered, furious at fate's cruel and careless hand. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the chance meeting that was surely a result of anything but chance.
Out of four hundred and twenty five days, I had succeeded in navigating the village safely for the first four hundred and twenty four of them; it was on the last and most sensitive- time-wise and emotionally- of days that the demanding neighbour struck.
"Well! As I live and breathe!" There was simply no getting away from a battle-cry of that magnitude; her tone carried the deep conviction of a triumphant eagle that has, after much effort, seized upon its prey and is resolute in finishing the task at hand.
As I live and breathe, I know it now: there is no escape from a thoroughly determined neighbour. Though she might wait and hover and bide her time for years on end, she will emerge on the eleventh hour to accost the long-lost traveller.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Moment

"The living moment is everything."
-D.H. Lawrence

Cobalt blue, and here-and there dabs of cotton clouds: that was the sky over a park in Ireland where I sat a couple of years ago, observing the picnics and the children, the birds that darted down for the shadows of leftover bread crusts, the students stretching out long on the grass with enormous textbooks cushioning their sleeping heads.
The local authorities had just installed a ring of high quality, polished, wooden seats that encircled the inner segment of the park. I sat, glad for the comfort, pleased that somebody was taking care to ensure the park was maintained and that the tourists and joggers and colleagues who frequented the area would feel privileged to do so.
I was about to rise and continue my walk about the city of Galway when I was struck back into place by a conversation happening at a tremendous volume next to my ear, for which I admit no fault in overhearing.
"What's the point of these fancy seats?" the woman announced boldly to her friend. "They're just all going to rot someday anyway."
In spite of my astonishment, I silently agreed with my neighbour: the marvellous wooden structures might succumb to the rain, and rot and crumble someday.
They might.
But at the very least, we might bring ourselves to enjoy the moment; and while sitting under the most perfect blue sky, with the luxury of having time to spare, that ought not to be very difficult to accomplish.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."
-Ernest Hemingway

Anyone familiar with the chronicles of various jobs I have held will also know that most came to a sorry end, culminating in hair-raising escape.
It was by chance that some endeavours of mine turned out to be simply hideous, and I was motivated to engage in them for reasons other than money- lured, I was, by the prospect of meeting interesting people and adding curiosity to my life.
I embarked, one Christmas, on what would turn out to be the most short-lived of experiences. I accepted a job in a nightclub just as the festivities and the local office party season were getting underway. I had been promised the title of waitress, but within moments of stepping onto the floor for work, I was faced with my mistake and somebody else's pretext.
There was not a bite of food involved: I was immediately assigned to collect empty beer and wine glasses from each corner of the nightclub, stack them, and deposit them in the kitchen.
Had I been able to actually see anything, I might have fared a little better. I could not even find the corners of the nightclub, much less the glasses that were lurking in them.
As I stood and attempted to determine my surroundings and my next step, I was pummelled and pushed on all sides by dancing, oblivious individuals.
We were sardines in a tin, all of us, and I was the only sardine that needed to get anywhere.
I lost my way several times in the first two minutes, spun around by the flailing arms and legs of exuberant patrons, smothered by the sheer force of the flock.
Even if I had been lucky enough to locate a wayward wine glass, I doubted I could hold onto it long enough to carry it to the kitchen, and anyhow, I was expected to return each time with no less than twenty used glasses in a wobbling tower- so my triumphant cries of "I got one! I got a glass!" would go largely unheeded.
After twenty minutes, when I could not breathe, I could not move and I could not do any work, I decided to terminate my employment and go home.
My belongings were in another section of the nightclub, beyond a door which one needed a code to enter. I had been told the combination, but it had slipped my mind in the panic, and I soon understood that I could not leave without asking again for the code, and that nobody would let me leave easily. As I was not really contributing to the evening's progress, I assumed that my absence would go unnoticed.
I swam over to my supervisor as soon as I caught sight of her head bobbing through the waves of dancers. She had a precarious, enviable pyramid of wine glasses clasped in her arms.
"I need the security code," said I, with what I hoped was an air of nonchalance.
"I want to see the boss for a moment," I knew the owner of the nightclub was in an office beyond that door, and using him as an excuse just might get me in there long enough to gather my jacket and purse.
"Why do you want to see him?"
"Oh, I just want to ask him something."
"You can ask me." She was truculent, her face like a thundercloud, hands on hips.
"I'd rather ask him."
"You can ask me."
We carried on like that for a time, until she at last halted the circular dialogue, changed tone and asked, "is there something wrong?"
Cornered, I confessed that I was having difficulty turning around without being hit in the face by an elbow, and was therefore regretfully unable to carry out the task I was entrusted with.
To her credit and to my surprise, she asked me to stay; in fact she begged me to give my decision a little more thought. As a last resort, she offered to place me in the kitchen- doing anything so long as I helped out in some way at such a hectic time.
I spent the next six hours scrubbing glasses, grateful to be away from the throngs of people, working in silence. Not only did I complete the entire shift, but I returned the following evening as well, gladly taking up position in the kitchen.
Since I was determined to retreat a mere twenty minutes after starting work, I had to hand it to my supervisor: I disliked her character, but she carried out her management role superbly, listening to my complaints, persuading me to stay when I wanted to go home, and finding another project to occupy my time. Much as I was glad in the end to escape, her loyalty to the job was commendable and it is what I remembered best long after I left the venue behind.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


"Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon."
-Alexander Pope

...Then there was the time that Spouse and I, in our endeavours to carry out a frugal life- which included an increasing awareness of electricity and of the number of lights about our house that we kept burning- discovered that our back porch light was in fact very much on; and, we deduced through bitter tears, it had been shining brightly for at least four months. Oh, the horror, and humiliation: I had boasted frequently to Mater of our economical lifestyle and had pressed her to turn off lights when she left a room in her own home.
A strip of duct tape pasted furiously over the switch soon ensured that no little child-visitor could fiddle, unseen, with the light to the back porch; and that Spouse and I would never again utilise the lamp which caused us much misery and a considerable setback in our confidence.

Friday, November 7, 2008


"One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure."
-William Feather

I hopped on board a bus today. It might not strike an observer as being of much consequence but I have been postponing it for as long as I have lived in the neighbourhood.
When Spouse and I resided in California, I was, I suspect, the most frequently seen passenger on the local bus service once I mastered the schedules; but I am initially reluctant to wave down a bus that I have no prior experience with. I have never been what one would call an extrovert and I give altogether too much consideration to what bus drivers might think of me.
After much deliberation I set off this morning, determined to make my way to the local library.
As I stood shivering by an enormous sign that helpfully bore a symbol of a bus, wild and irrational thoughts concerning bus etiquette jogged through my mind.
What was the protocol for ensuring the bus would stop? Ought I to wave when I saw it heading toward me? What if I waved, and it happened not to be the bus I required- how dreadfully awkward to make a vehicle halt for me unnecessarily! What sort of a wave would be the appropriate one? What if I waved and the driver assumed I was sending a greeting to a neighbour across the road? Or worse- if he thought I was waving him on, that I did not need him to stop! There again, a bold and confident wave might be construed as the equivalent of barking an order. What if my wave was not vigorous enough to be seen, and the fellow steamed past, leaving me embarrassed and busless?
As for disembarking the vehicle: how would I, not knowing the bus route, be sure when I was approaching my destination? Ought I to speak up? Or would there be a bell? What if I found the bell, and rang it, and discovered that it was the wrong corner?
I wondered, even before the excursion began, how to get home again. What if I was unable to get off the bus? I would circle the area in an endless loop, roll stupidly past our apartment again and again and again, too dumbstruck to request a stop, until at last, as evening fell, I would see Spouse's car back in its usual place, and, eventually, Spouse would grow so ravenous waiting for dinner that he would be forced to position himself in the middle of the road, fling up his hands and force the driver to halt the bus so that I could stumble off.
In the end, none of those worst-case scenarios transpired. All the drivers were friendly and accommodating, nobody seemed to suspect at all that I was feeling like a fish out of water, and I carefully watched what every other passenger did in order to deduce the right steps to take.
I knew I had attained the art of blending in when some stranded fellow asked if I knew about a particular bus route.
I have, for better or worse, become one of the locals.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life Goes On

"There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self."
-Aldous Huxley

The fellows that seem perpetually intent on digging up our road- they had a brief respite this week, leaving us in peace for a few days. But they were back to greet the sun this morning, to propel me violently from my sleep and to concentrate on that most special patch of ground which I estimate to be less than three square feet.
Some things, it seems, never change.
We are in the midst of a substantial and extraordinary week; but life nonetheless must go on, the wheels of trivial matters must keep turning, and we must all attend to our own fragment of the world to ensure any degree of improvement.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse...
A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
-From the poem 'Sometimes' by Sheenagh Pugh

Spouse and I awoke this morning having experienced a rare and uncharacteristic late night, and an evening like no other. During those seconds in which the mind races and attempts to catch up with the eyelids, we remembered: despite all of our recent worries and tension and anguish, we were waking, beyond all our expectation, to good news.
Spouse and I, then, were the lucky ones. We were lucky because others opened their day with pain and concern, tasting defeat. Having envisioned exactly that scenario for both of us, and having wondered relentlessly how we would cope, I understood the despair that must have been overwhelming as the day broke. We were the lucky ones, seeing the world with glad eyes when it might have been otherwise- when it has, in fact, been that way for us before. We had become all too familiar in recent times with the crushing grief of loss and dashed possibilities.
There are so many like Spouse and I, who yesterday got what we were hoping for. But I consider that today we are all fortunate, in the United States and all over the world; and time, the great healer and testament, will prove that to be true.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Would If I Could

"Action is eloquence."
-William Shakespeare

Spouse went to vote this morning shortly after daybreak, and I, always ready for an excursion of momentous proportions, accompanied him.
We were separated when Spouse entered a little room to vote and I hovered forlornly in the hallway. Twinging and straining to reach a ballot of my very own, I wondered how anybody could refrain from such an event.
It soon happened that a crisply-dressed lady, who was waiting to vote, turned to me as the line began crawling inside, and she asked if I wanted to go before her.
My short answer was no, thank you; the longer one, which was altogether much too elaborate- she was being swept forward by the crowd- was that I would very much like to, but was obliged by law to remain on the fringes for at least another four years.
I considered that the scene would be a brief lesson in civic duty for anybody who chose, out of sheer apathy, not to vote at all. Being compelled to observe others in action might awaken that old ideal of appreciating what one has before it is not there anymore.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Let Us Rise

"The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise."
-James Larkin

My plans for this morning were all mapped out since last evening. I knew what I would write, what I would publish. I was prepared to extract, from my files, either a lengthy adventure or a remark about my mother.
All intentions flew out the window shortly after breakfast when I became unable to extend my thinking beyond the immense gravity of the moment.
On this day, which I admit wreaks considerable havoc on my nerves, every fragment of human society is teetering on the edge of a precipice, gazing into the yawning chasm of possibility. History books will be composed about these very hours, and we do not yet have the benefit of hindsight to guess at what they might tell us. Those with the power and the willingness to vote, however, will have the privilege of contributing to the story that unfolds, and must do so with the greatest of care and comprehension.
Let us rise.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


"The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things don't come to mind when we want them."
-Friedrich Nietzsche

I frequently pause at the fridge door, hand outstretched, struggling to recall what snack it was I had been intending to fetch. Or I freeze vacantly before the cupboard, or storage closet, or keyboard, or find myself at a loss when talking to my mother, fighting to tell her something that had moments ago been terribly urgent, unable despite my best efforts to bring it to mind.
Yet when Mater starts to tell me some news of home, for which she must first recall the name of a little boy she temporarily tutored a decade ago- a child I never met and only heard of in relation to his tragic inability to spell elementary words- I close my eyes and his name, unassuming and commonplace, floats forth and allows me to supply Mater with the answer she seeks, startling the pair of us in the process.
There is no accounting for memory, or the lack of it, or what mundane details we choose to keep with us.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


"The inability to stay quiet is one of the conspicuous failings of mankind."
-Walter Bagehot

It began three weeks ago, commencing at seven thirty each morning. At least, one might offer, the men were on time for work, which is admirable.
They were accompanied by diggers and drills and tools to be used on the stretch of road that runs beside our apartment. Spouse is routinely awake and carrying out the chores of the day before the sun rises. I frequently favour fragments of a nap before Spouse goes to work and my day begins in earnest.
The workers were splitting the ground open, so it stands to reason that a degree of noise would ensue. But I hardly knew that walls could tremble so much, that glass could hum the way ours did when the machines plundered through the surface of the road.
Worst of all, no rhythm could be salvaged from the cacophony, no sequence that I could distinguish. I long ago discovered how to sleep even on nights when anxious dogs seek to disrupt the peace with howling and barking: I decipher the pattern- there is always one to be found- and fall in step with the uniformity.
Shrill sounds do not keep me from my sleep, but erratic peals and arbitrary commotion will destroy any chance of rest. Our apartment suffered the worst, I suspect, due to its proximity to the road.
Mercifully, as the days progressed the workers gradually edged along the street with their equipment, out of hearing range at least for me. They vanished altogether last week, taking with them their bulldozers and cables and cruel contraptions.
All was hushed, and it was welcomed.
But I was jarred with a jolt out of my dormancy yesterday morning, certain I had awoken to a catastrophe in the neighbourhood. It was shortly after dawn and the same fellows were there as though they had never left. And they were, to my complete bewilderment, hammering resolutely away at the very same spot they had just spent two weeks shattering and repairing, as though there were no other plot of land in all the world that needed to be mended.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mother's Eyes

"Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I spoke with Mater yesterday and decided, on a whim, to perform some gentle exercises at the same time. One leg up high, down again, the other one up, then down, as I marched back and forth purposely across the cold kitchen floor.
I stated that they were gentle: they were almost not exercises at all, so mild and nondescript were the actions. They took place without interrupting the flow of a reasonable conversation.
Then, from nowhere: "why do I get the feeling you are doing exercises? Your voice sounds as though you are."
It was a lucky thing I was standing on both legs at the time, or I might have tipped right over. Surprise can do that.
With my mother still at the other end of the line, I brewed a cup of tea. I added the requisite portion of sugar, an amount known only to me- or so I thought until I realised the futility.
"Are you scraping something from a container?"
Were Mater to calculate the number of times she heard the spoon touch the box, and then gauge the weight of each spoonful by the sharpness or dullness of the clatter, the precise volume of sugar could be ascertained.
I contemplated the ramifications of having a mother who sees everything.
"Big Mother is watching." I sipped my tea and heaved a sigh.
"Believe it," came the gleeful retort.
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