Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Monday, June 30, 2008

Good Deeds and Willow Trees

How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
-William Shakespeare

I had a tree once, a willow tree- or at least the fragile beginnings of one. I dug a place for it in the earth during the last minutes of the twentieth century's daylight. As I toiled, as I beat my foot down on the shovel in the snap of a bitter afternoon, I wished for a lasting, ever-thriving bridge between one era and the next- a memory of one, a hope for the other.
It was to be my good deed for the close of day- I was nineteen and eager to make my mark- and by the time the roots were tucked underneath the soil, I had come to refer to my tree as Mr. Willow.
Planting trees is always a splendid idea, and I was possessed with the innocent notion that my willow would inspire me to better myself and the world in the years ahead.
I tended to him for several months; growth was bitterly slow. Still I, the proud gardener, could not help but admire Mr. Willow for his symbolic status.
Alas: even symbols can founder.
My tree could not withstand the persuasive wind that lifted him one night from the only plot he had known, and carried him away.
I was desperately glum afterward, staring at the gaping wound in the garden, that perfectly-timed moment of plantation lost to me forever.
I felt rather like the child in the Raymond Briggs' story 'The Snowman' in which a lonesome boy built a companion out of snow only to lose him too soon in the cruel sun.
I discovered, instead of a puddle, a hollow where Mr. Willow had stood before he was plucked up and away.
I like to suppose that Mr. Willow was able to absorb my attempts at youthful, noble thoughts, that he is to this very day blowing about the world with an occasional courteous nod to the living beings below.
Perhaps the leaves of Mr. Willow, wherever he may be, are still infused with sunlight from two centuries- light that I struggled to capture.
It would be too sad a thing to believe that good intentions can simply fade into oblivion without a trace.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Which Fish

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”
-Igor Stravinsky

On one of his recent gallivants, Spouse had dinner in Chicago with some colleagues. There was fish on the menu: 'White Fish' was the terse description offered.
Spouse, being quite the curious sort about what he consumes, asked the waitress for her expert advice on which particular white fish they happened to be serving.
"White Fish," said she. She pointed to the menu, perhaps presuming that Spouse had missed the line which stated White Fish rather clearly.
"No," said Spouse gently, "I meant, which white fish is it?"
The waitress, disbelieving of such foolishness, pointed again, eyes a little bigger.
"White Fish. I said it's White Fish."
"But is it cod, or haddock, or whiting, or plaice?" pleaded Spouse as his stomach growled.
"It's White Fish," said the waitress, who shrugged, and Spouse knew all of a sudden that that was to be the end of the discussion.
Were I the waitress, and uncertain which fish, I would have explained that the restaurant staff refer to it only as White Fish; I would have attempted to appease the customer by either conducting some brief research into the actual type of fish, or at the very least supporting the hungry person by agreeing that White Fish is indeed a rather vague title.
Her attitude was, instead, one of take-it-or-leave-it, I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about, and is not very conducive to good appetite or warm reception.
The simple fact is that the waitress was not listening to the real question.
I would have liked to be the waitress charged with such an innocent but interesting query. I have always preferred to listen than to talk: I enjoy observing human beings and along my way I gather the fruits of many stories.
Of late, some curious reminders of my former waitressing life have been coming back to haunt me, albeit in ways that inspire the flow of creativity.
I had, shall we say, interesting times- there is nothing like being surrounded by a flock of people to generate new ways of seeing and writing about the world.
I suspect that the tables are calling out to me once more.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Under the Weather

“It is humankind's duty to respect all life, not only animals have feelings but even also trees and plants”
-Michel de Montaigne

Our friends in Maine presented us with a chive plant during our last visit just over a month ago. Given that we live in an apartment and have not a scrap of outdoor space to ourselves it is rather incredible that the plant has survived this length of time. Water, plant food, tender words, concern and a regal position in our window which overshadowed our family photographs- all have done nothing to bring sparkle to the chives.
The few leaves that do not droop have turned a cheerless shade of brown. Spouse and I, concerned for the well-being of our botanical charge, have struck upon an industrious plan.
We had intended to celebrate the Fourth of July with those very friends: our first consideration was to bring the plant with us and surrender it back to the care of people who understand all things green and wild. We were quite ready to give up.
Then I questioned whether the chive plant might simply be in need of short-term recuperation. There was an era, most of which I have read about in novels, when seriously ill people were given doctor's orders to go to the seaside for six months and take complete rest. Once refreshed by time and tide, they were then able to return home with full health. As it is with people, so too it might affect vegetation.
There it is, then: the chive plant will join us on our trip and return home rejuvenated and repaired.
Sunlight, fresh air and its original habitat for a weekend: what more could a chive plant wish for?

Friday, June 27, 2008

At First Sight

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
-Miriam Beard

I was prompted recently to think about the art of capturing images, both with eye and camera, and I think about how devastating it is to be forced to surrender any creative opportunity. Of course, we cannot observe everything the world has to offer, nor can every photograph be a successful one.
Whenever I travel with Spouse, I take possession of the camera while he maneuvers the car. It is necessary, on long drives, to prevent the battery from fading so, as soon as I consider that a stretch of the journey has become bland and not worthy of a photograph, I turn off the camera and relax to enjoy the scenery.
It is inevitable that, moments after I close the lens cap and shift from being photographer to passenger, we will turn a bend and come upon some lovely sight. It might be a bird or a cloud, a solitary old man in his field or the hazy skyline of a city- something that lifts our travelling spirits as we sweep over a hill.
I will scramble to capture the image but by the time the camera has sprung to life once more, the particular landmark, or at least the very best perspective of it, has passed us by.
"Too late, too slow," it trills, a half mile, now a mile behind us. "You missed it!"
When that happens, I sit and mourn for a spell, the camera resting useless in my lap, the battery winding away.
The cycle begins again as soon as I decide that the battery must be preserved. Spouse will call out for me to seize the moment, but I already will be struggling with the duplicitous device.
I now suspect that I have been going about this entirely the wrong way.
Spouse and I have been reducing the goods in our small apartment for the better part of a year. We have learned how to determine what we need or wish to keep and we separate the rest and either give, sell or dispose of the superfluous possessions. We speak often to one another about the peaceful atmosphere that such activity provokes and- happily- are in complete agreement about the final destination of most items.
Knowing what to hold on to and what to cast aside- that sense did not come easily. We had to learn it day by day and item by item until at last we found a pattern. We were forced to learn about ourselves ever before the process became therapeutic or simple. In essence, we had to learn how to see.
There is so much noise, clutter and extraneous information in the world that even something as elementary as taking a photograph has some requirements, particularly that we must train ourselves to instantaneously ascertain the worth of an article or a scene.
In hindsight I wonder if, at those times when the camera battery appeared to be trickling away for lack of interesting vistas, I might have been missing something wonderful. It seems rather unusual bad luck to have beauty show its face within a trice of my putting the camera to sleep.
It could well be that, but I am beginning to doubt the possibility.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

On the House

"Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even if you wish they were."
-Author Unknown

I know of a pub owner, an elderly man in a small village in Ireland who is renowned for his curt, razor-sharp manner and an alarming tendency to bellow insults at his customers.
His rudeness knows no boundaries and he strikes me always as a caricature, an exaggeration of a miserly fellow from one of Charles Dickens' more heart-rending novels.
A cousin of mine brought her friend into the pub one evening. The latter was unfamiliar with both the area and the pub owner except that which my cousin had warned him of beforehand.
"Whatever you do," she advised, "please, please don't ask him for anything extra."
He stood at the bar and asked, with a genuinely innocent intent, if he might get a few lumps of ice inside his drink.
The pub owner looked at the newcomer with distaste. His single eye was like a glinting chip of the requested ice. His lip curled.
He spat,"you can have ice. Stand outside in the cold with your glass, you'll get your ice."
The pair crept to their seats, iceless, like frightened mice. The fellow would not try something like that again.
I attended the place some time ago for the birthday celebration of somebody who knew somebody else who knew somebody related to me.
As midnight crept by, the pub owner, as is his weekly custom, passed around an enormous tray of complimentary sausages, bacon and sandwiches. Whatever else one may say about him, he surely fed his customers well.
I was not certain about whether to accept any of the food: if I took a superfluous amount I might suffer from his wrath.
I watched a woman hesitate, sizing up the different offerings.
"What will I have?" she mused, fingers dangling, playing silent piano chords over the warm snacks.
He roared at her to hurry up and get on with it. He did not notice that I jumped a good number of feet into the air at the thunder.
Somebody else made the dreadful mistake of saying "no, thank you," which led to the pub owner shouting about ingratitude and the terrible waste of his hard work.
I quite considered vacating the building when I observed him verbally tearing into a customer who selected too much food.
"Don't take it all!" came the mighty growl.
A friend seated next to me was not at all hungry and had no appetite for greasy food but dutifully took some small pieces when her turn came and hid them under the table.
I considered it a fortunate occurrence that I was actually hungry and I consumed a couple of sausages with shaking fingers.
One wonders how he manages to have any patrons at all. There must be a reason.
It is this: the atmosphere, the jovial spirit among the customers on any given evening is not to be surpassed by any other pub for miles. There is always live music and singing, uproarious laughter and genuine warmth, and while the pub owner remains solidly behind the bar cleaning glasses- he employs nobody- or serving drinks, the party is unbroken by his surly demeanour.
One must understand that these people do not visit the pub for him, but for the company of their friends and family. To tourists, however, it is a mild form of entertainment to watch such singular behaviour.
When Spouse visited Ireland last year I wished for him to know of this infamous pub owner, wanted Spouse to experience first hand something unique and special. Like my cousin before me, I strongly urged Spouse not to ask for anything extra, not to look the pub owner in the face but to simply sit back and watch the performance. I knew that Spouse had never seen such an ill-mannered businessman.
As it turned out, he never did see any of what I wanted him to see.
The pub owner behaved like a decent fellow all evening long: he never raised his voice, neither did he bark any caustic answers. When passing the sausages around the pub he was, if not meek, then at least cordial.
"Come on," he would say, "have a few more. There's plenty to go around."
I looked about the pub for the fellow's twin brother I was convinced must exist, for I felt sure that we were being duped.
He provided drinks during the evening with not a single opinionated comment, no sarcasm and not a hint of the crudeness we were all familiar with.
I sat for hours but, despite my waiting expectantly, he showed none of his usual traits. It had never happened before and other customers made mention of it afterward.
I was rather disappointed and, half joking, apologised to Spouse for the rather dull show. The evening as a whole, on the other hand, was thoroughly entertaining and was indeed a get-together worth remembering for years.
I still have great difficulty reconciling the contentious pub owner with the almost-amiable man who Spouse met and who none of us had ever seen before.
I am again reminded of the curious, ever-surprising nature of people.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hair Piece

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."
-Mark Twain

The following poem is based on my cousin's father, and his very traditional reaction to the influence on simple Irish life of a Hollywood film star whose name he was only vaguely familiar with.

Haircuts in an Irish home, 1950s

He didn't agree with it
how modern youths
yearned for long hair
wished for blue jeans
idolised a dead film star
from a distant country,
styled themselves on their hero.
He didn't really know
who James Dean was
just a name on the wind
an ill wind, a low rumble
a sure sign of trouble:
he didn't like the way
boys tried to emulate the fellow
swaggering in leather jackets
defiant, restless rascals
topped by unruly hair.
So out came the clippers
snip snip snippety snip
always he met with protests,
every few weeks trimming hairs
short around the collar.
Better to be clean cut
neat, decent as he had been
in a childhood without cinema.
As he pruned, as his sons scowled
below a determined hand
he'd mutter under his breath
that he just wouldn't have it
no, he'd see to it himself
"there'll be no Jesse Jeans in this house."


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Window Dressing

Two birds fly past.
They are needed somewhere.
-Robert Bly

The table was set, the house was ours: Spouse and I prepared to dine, to celebrate our new home in Texas. The last of the day's sun drenched the kitchen as the windows were yet without shade. We seated ourselves, raised our forks, each heaved a contented sigh.
A mighty bang demolished the fine mood and startled us both out of our seats.
In the garden a tumble of brown feathers lay warm but still. The creature had no chance, had no concept of what he was sailing into. One moment he had been a melodious heart and two wings on a breeze, the next his breath was forced out of him by an enemy he never saw.
Both Spouse and I were greatly distressed by the loss and felt quite dreadful that it was our undressed window that had knocked him off the course of his life forever.
We ate our meal in silence, painfully conscious of the loss that lay crumpled in the dirt outside the window.
Upon tidying away the plates and glasses we set to work trying to amend the situation. Spouse industriously recommended that even a hint of colour on the glass would deter birds from flying into it.
Not having had time to unpack our belongings, the best we could emerge with was several sheets of white paper which we taped to the inside of each window of the living room. Standing in the garden afterward it was evident that we had provided a very reasonable warning sign to small feathery creatures.
Indeed, for as long as we lived in that house not another bird hit the window; they simply spun away as soon as their shadows drew close to the glass. Perhaps it was the dramatic white paper that worked the magic, or, strangely, it might have had something to do with the bold message we drew in enormous letters on each sheet:
This led us to the inevitable conviction that the flying friends in our back garden were rather well read.

Monday, June 23, 2008


"I was wrong to grow older. Pity. I was so happy as a child."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For a long period commencing when I was eleven years old, when my brother and I attended Sunday Mass in the nearby village, an old lady, unfamiliar to us, took her place regularly in the pew behind our regular place.
We noticed her when she began to make her weekly visits a routine. I never found out where she came from or who she arrived with but the appearance continued for several years.
"Ninety-three," she would spit onto the back of my neck, or that of my brother's. She made rubbery noises with her lips at every declaration.
"Ninety-three" was all we ever heard her say before she blew air with a rather disturbing smacking noise.
I remember getting to my feet once for a certain part of the service and finding that I was unable to rise completely. The old woman had grabbed with two hands the bottom of my jacket and was tugging for all she was worth with a strength that belied her age.
"Ninety-three," she wheezed. I could not move and was caught midway, unsure what to do for the sake of politeness.
Much later, what seemed to me like hours, she relaxed her iron grip on my clothing and I was free, albeit blushing furiously at the unanticipated encounter.
She was not really there; that is to say I do not believe she was aware she was holding onto the jacket of a stranger nor indeed even that she was in a church. Most likely she was enveloped in another world entirely, shielded from her infirmity by the mercy of her memories.
I admit that she frightened us both. We were children, and not able to comprehend why an adult would act in such an eccentric way. Elderly people were known to us for their wisdom and common sense, and in our eyes she broke every rule.
The elderly are full of the most elaborate mystery; tragedy occurs when that treasure can no longer be accessed. My brother and I always wondered what "ninety-three" might have meant to her that she needed to mutter it over and over again.
Maybe it was a portion of a girlish song from her early days, or the number of her first house with a dear husband, or the number of pennies she once won unexpectedly at a village fair. Of course I cannot say for certain but I would like to imagine that it was a happy fragment she spun in her mind.
My sibling and I continue to remember that old lady and her restless numerical chattering- but, just like a faded photograph found in an anonymous box, it remains permanently without meaning or a frame of reference.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Jumping to Conclusions

"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
-Jane Austen

In recent weeks new neighbours have moved in above us. To the pleasant surprise of Spouse and I, despite the presence of two children in the family, they are for the most part considerably quiet.
That was an unexpected turn: the previous tenants, who also had two children, would quite literally cause the building to shake and rattle when they climbed the stairs or when they so much as stepped across their apartment, and we presumed the same of the next people.
On occasion they would stamp so hard that I would instantly be drained of whatever creative inspiration I had been possessed of, and my muse, disturbed, would flutter away for more peaceful pastures.
It was devastating to endure such daily commotion and it is difficult to address one's neighbours about such matters as it might well have provoked the matter into more serious levels had we done so.
Many a time I commented to Spouse, "it sounds like the children are jumping off the table!"
or "I'm sure they're dragging the furniture around the room!"
But none of that made any sense at all. Children do not jump off tables on a regular basis; they might try it once but certainly sensible parents would put a stop to it.
Some weeks after the family moved away Spouse and I went down to the back of our apartment complex to dispose of some rubbish at the dumpster.
"Look," said I, "isn't that familiar?"
Covered in beetles, morning dew and long grass, I spied what looked to be our miniature trampoline. We had said goodbye to it last November in a clean sweep of our apartment, in a whimsy of frantic cleaning, and it had been duly dispatched to the dumpster. Indeed it had soon disappeared and we reasonably assumed that it had been hauled away with everything else.
Spouse and I looked at one another then and all the light dawned on us. Those neighbours had been using our very own trampoline to fill our precious hours with noise, had turned our own once-prized possession against us and had generated a good deal of frustration and in the end, had left it, abandoned, for the next new neighbours to discover and maintain the cycle.
One would hope that the grass grows rapidly over what is left of the trampoline and that it is never seen- or heard- again.
I am glad to have more dormant neighbours this time. I ought not to have presumed otherwise until they had settled in.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

If it Isn't Broken

“When a thought takes one's breath away, a grammar lesson seems an impertinence.”
-Thomas W. Higginson

My cousin visited us from Ireland at the end of last Summer. He enjoyed every bit of the two-week trip but was very much entertained by browsing the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble. It had been many years since I saw in myself that level of enthusiasm in exploring a new place, and I well recalled my own first visits to the enormous book vault.
Spouse and I happen to really like one that is in a large complex with a number of other stores. For some very simple reason my cousin insisted on referring repeatedly to the store as 'Burns and Noble.'
In the beginning it was quaint and I considered it a minor error. Besides, he was terribly excited about everything he saw and I thought it unfair to point out such a mistake. As the days went on however, and my cousin began to root it deeper into his mind that the name was 'Burns and Noble' I could take it no longer and sought, for his sake, to correct him.
I chose to do it on a balmy afternoon as we stood before Barnes and Noble and just as we were about to proceed next door to a clothing store called Marshall's.
"It's called Barnes and Noble," I said firmly. "Remember that. Especially if you should get lost."
I could hardly imagine that nobody would understand him if he called it that slightly wrong name but just to be cautious, I made sure to inform him of the exact title. He was paying scant attention, however, and his eye was on the next building.
Nothing is comparable to the thrill and charge of surveying a person who has travelled to a distant country for the very first time. When Spouse and I, Mater and my cousin were circumnavigating the malls, we made sure to tell the latter where and when we all ought to meet up, to avoid confusion and disaster. Even as we were explaining the precise details, he was already pulling away from the rest of us, eager to begin his reconnaissance of the shopping area and certainly not hearing one whit of anything we said.
Such is how it was that afternoon outside Barnes and Noble.
I said the name of the store again.
"Right," he said, vaguely. "I've got it now." His traveller's spirit was already perusing prices in Marshall's.
For my troubles, ever since then he has insisted on referring to the store as 'Barnes and Marshall's.' It has now become a hearty, embedded joke and I have come to understand that it is quite permanent.
Sometimes leaving well alone is the better thing to do.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Winds of Change

“Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is small.”
-Ruth Gendler

I am petrified of storms. When it is windy I cringe, terrified that the roof will blow off and everything I care about will be flung into the pit of the night sky. At my worst times I worried even when there was no wind- I considered that it might start without notice.
It has always been that way. At blustery times I slept as a child with my fingers burrowed into my ears and stayed that way until morning when the gales had hushed and the world was safe again.
When evening would fall and winds began to gather, my heart would tumble to my toes. I relentlessly asked Mater if she thought the wind was bad, if it would get worse, and if we would be all right.
The appropriate answers were no, no and yes, of course.
That was not adequate for me. I had to have a gauge of some sort, and I found one quite early on.
We had a metal dustbin in our back yard and I used that as an instrument of measurement: if it gave the slightest rattle I would panic.
"Do you think the wind will blow off the lid of the dustbin?" I asked time and again of my mother all the way through my childhood.
The dustbin was located near to my bedroom window and I would lie awake ready to block my ears if I thought that the lid was close to taking off.
I never gave much thought to what would happen if the wind did raise the dustbin lid. Beyond thoughts of our roof tiles scattering and all inside being tossed, I attempted to block my mind as well as my ears of such notions.
Then on Christmas Eve when I was seventeen, we had a storm so violent that some parts of our roof were indeed launched into the air. Our chimney toppled. Live electrical wires danced on the roadside. Our battery-operated radio told us that somebody had been killed by a wall that collapsed. Our dustbin lid was not only prised off but it vanished entirely, sucked into the darkness.
I did not put my fingers in my ears at all on that seemingly ceaseless night. I was almost eerily calm, quite resigned to the fact that we were in the midst of the very thing I had always been most afraid of. The thick walls of the house were trembling and the wailing was deeply unsettling.
It was actually happening. The best thing, the only thing to do about it was to sit and talk with one another and hope that the storm would wear itself out with the hours.
It did, of course, and a still morning undid the fear and the darkness.
Mater hunted for as long as she considered worthwhile but that dustbin lid had taken its opportunity and fled the scene. It was gone. It did not entirely take with it as luggage my irrational fear of disaster but I remember that night and the dreadful things that were unfolding all about us. I remember and realise that the morning did arrive, as expected, and the wind beat itself up and then left us to resume our lives. We survived.
My brother's significant other was wandering in my mother's back fields yesterday when she struck gold. She imagined for a moment that she had discovered buried treasure. She strode back to the house feeling rather like a pirate and said to my mother, "did you know you have a dustbin lid buried in your field?"
To her astonishment my mother started laughing, for of course she was thinking of me, and of how my wind gauge had long ago blown away as I had feared it would. Life goes on; the vessel that it covered has long been consigned to the past, and Mater can only hear the faintest childish echo of a voice from yesterday: "do you think the wind will blow off the lid of the dustbin?"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Best Medicine

"You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."
-John Wooden

My brother and his significant other were motoring yesterday when they glimpsed a black and white bundle at the side of the road. They stopped the car and hurried out to the aid of the injured bird, a Magpie.
He must have been hit by a car. The fellow was in deep shock, dripping wet and missing some feathers from the top of his delicate head.
The pair gathered him up and took him straight away to my mother's house.
A hairdryer was soon procured and the Magpie's feathers were softly blown to a comfortable level of dryness. He was set down in a bedroom and left in peace to recover from the dreadful mishap that had befallen him.
The very last thing I heard from Mater indicated that the bird's strength was resuming. His alertness was gradually sharpening up and a short interim at the hands of a girl who loves animals with her whole heart seemed to have begun to mend the helpless creature.
This bird will eventually- with any luck- fly away, and those that salvaged his life will be graced by the bright spark of hope and fulfillment that comes with performing an act of kindness.
Looking after one another, and having concern for the tiniest of creatures, has always worked wonders- whether that be with a hairdryer, spare change or a smile.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Guest

“Mystery is a resource, like coal or gold, and its preservation is a fine thing”
-Tim Cahill

I first met Spouse when he came to visit my family one Christmas. We soon found out that he was a voracious water-drinker. He sometimes consumed a gallon a day and we all made sure that our guest constantly had some to hand. The jug was always filled, glasses were set aside for him and if he wanted bottled water we had some put by as well.
He slept in my old attic bedroom- he had been cheerful about climbing a ladder to bed each night. I stayed with Mater in the downstairs bedroom.
Weeks later, after he was gone again, the house was sadly silent, especially that first evening.
In the morning I went with a forlorn sigh to the attic to see if he had unwittingly left anything behind. A guest's recently vacated room is one of the saddest things in the world.
I found a single glass of water, filled to the very brim, on the bedside table. Suddenly I was dumbfounded into recollection.
A memory slapped at me: I had partially woken up during that night, filled a glass of water for Spouse, climbed the ladder with one hand on the rungs and brought to Spouse the gift of a drink without spilling one drop.
That would have all been perfectly acceptable, except that by the time I was precariously ascending the ladder, Spouse was quite likely unpacking his bags in California and missing Ireland.
I risked all to bring, in my half-sleep, a glass of water to somebody who was no longer there. One should do no less for one's house guest and future Spouse.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Remains of the Day

"If you put off everything till you're sure of it, you'll never get anything done.”
-Norman Vincent Peale

My morning habit consists of setting a pot of water to boil and toasting some bread. Each time I stand in front of our toaster oven I unravel my mind slowly, contemplate the immediate future and muse about the fact that I really ought to scoop the old crumbs from the bottom of the appliance. It bothers me without fail every day as it has done for months on end. One day, I always fear, the toaster might have had enough and the remains of bread might start to smoke and burn.
As the bread toasts nicely and my tea steeps, I routinely start to think about what this day might bring, and what it might mean in the greater scheme of things. Would this be the day I do something I always wished to do? Or would the day slide into pitiful obscurity leaving me no better off than I was when I started it?
Such is my regular morning thought; consistently I worry so much about not getting anything done- for example writing a novel, attempting to have my work published, learning something new and valuable- that invariably I tend to steep, much as my tea does, and stagnate into wasteful idleness.
The other day I was observing as some garlic bread was gently turning golden brown.
"You do procrastinate," said the oven suddenly.
Stomach all of a rumble, I was not in much of a mood to argue but I insisted that I was not a procrastinator.
"You do. You put things off all the time," sizzled the oven with a faintly delicious and tantalising garlic breath.
"I do things," I replied. "I wrote a poem yesterday. I cooked a nice dinner."
"Well," said the toaster, "we're really discussing changing your life. Being useful in the world. Accomplishing something. Cooking and writing is all well and good but you can achieve those as well as bigger things. Ten years ago you thought of being a teacher."
"True," I had to concede.
"And a journalist."
"I see your point, Mr. Toaster. Life goes by and we don't even know we're pushing it aside."
"And many other plans- and where's that novel you've thought about for years? Is it even begun?"
"I suppose you're right," said I.
"I'll think about it, I promise. Could you hurry up now with that garlic bread?"
The toasted glared at me, unsure whether I had really learned my lesson.
Just to be certain, it cackled at me and made the buttery garlic bread burst into frightful flames.
I had to roar for Spouse who rushed in, saved the day and wisely lambasted me for not cleaning out the crumbs before the event.
Once the toaster had cooled down to a reasonable level below melting point, Spouse cleaned it out by himself.
I will work on the other matters.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Out of the Frying Pan

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
-James Beard

While growing up I had annually celebrated Pancake Tuesday with my family by making, or at least watching the preparations of, lots of tasty pancakes. I still prefer mine with lemon juice and plenty of sugar- eaten slowly to be savoured and followed by a hot cup of sweet tea.
And so on my first Pancake Tuesday with Spouse I was charmed by his arriving home from work and breezily suggesting that we try to make some pancakes that evening. I would probably not have carried on the tradition- I had not even remembered the day.
We spent about an hour cooking pancakes in the frying pan, and they turned out to be most delicious.
As I swept the last sugary crumb off my plate with supreme gratification, I made mention of the fact that it was a fortuitous thing that Spouse remembered Pancake Tuesday, for I had forgotten.
Spouse paused in the midst of his own chewing and said, "what's Pancake Tuesday?"
It soon became clear to me that Spouse had never heard of the day in all his life and that he had simply acquired an irresistible urge for pancakes and wished to make some.
Strange is life, indeed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This Far

The following is based on two people in my extended family who celebrated the turn of this century in their own incomparable way. It was put to paper just as soon as I heard the story from another relative but in recent months editing has sadly become necessary and so the poem has had to evolve with the time.
I considered that such a singular celebration between an elderly husband and wife was sufficiently touching enough to be captured in this way.

This Far: New Year's Eve, Ireland, 1999

Amidst the chaos of the world
festive souls greeting one another
in spirited drunken merriment

mumbling about the Millennium
how it would not happen
again in this lifetime;

amidst the electric hum of history
happening, unfurling its words
in a clutter and tumble of frolicking

there was a corner of the world
hushed and untroubled
and a tiny house where one light burned.

And beyond that single gleam
a room with two old souls;
he and she sat by a coal fire

almost seeming not to care
as the clock neared midnight
no dancing, no exultation.

In their half-century together
they'd watched the world change
over and over, seen it wear new faces.

They had always worked their
fingers raw on the farm
uncomplaining, strong, silent

working through the frigid winds
from the edge of the Atlantic
the edge of the universe.

Spent their together years looking
and still no word to explain the way
sunlight dancing on green-grey water

could make a body feel mighty
and humbled at the same time.
Those two, rooted among their dear ones

as much a part of the soft landscape
as the moody sky and long grass
salt spray and honest mud,

they turned to each other then
as that last chime sounded,
faced each other as friends.

One of them said solemnly,
"Well. Who'd have thought we'd get this far?"
and they shook hands.

They made tea after that
drank it wordlessly in the new century
all essentials uttered, another day closed.

Now one of them is gone
And unnoticed in the noise of things,
the world has changed some more:

by a chair left stunned and idle
or by the uncommon absence at noon
of a contented shadow on the stony road.

This far, they said, who'd have thought?
Of course, this far, that far
will never be time enough, not nearly

but the slow step and amble of a life
spent kindly and lived for one another:
worthy of honouring with a handshake.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lessons From a Bird

Old houses were
scaffolding once
and workmen whistling

While talking with Mater the other day, I happened to overhear the pet bird of the house- a relatively recent addition to the family- whistling boisterously in the background. On a whim, I asked my mother to hold the telephone up to his cage so that I might say hello.
I whistled, as one naturally does to a budgie when thousands of miles away, and he responded to my earnest greeting with an equally uplifting message.
Thank goodness that Spouse and I have an unlimited telephone plan to Ireland.
In the faded archives of my family history there is a story of a nineteen year old who left Ireland under desperate circumstances to forge a new and better life in the United States. She never was able to return to the land of her birth and communication was practically non existent between her and those she left behind.
I think of her, and of the stark contrast at times such as these. When I am enjoying the luxury of conversing with a bird, neither of us saying anything of substance, I not having to worry about the cost; when I have such time to spare that I might spend a few moments in a bird's company- then I think of my distant cousin and I wonder what she might have made of the fast and furious society we inhabit.
It is humbling to envision my relative sending e-mails regularly, letting loved ones see the establishment of a new life, keeping a family together despite the impossible distance.
I muse, too, on the possibility of my cousin taking vivid digital photographs, sharing them with those on the other side of the Atlantic.
Back and forth, instant news and notifications, constant interaction, history preserved and not a scrap of it lost to the years.
The images are all the more powerful for the fact that they never took place: her life was a long time before mine and such fancies were not yet even a seed in the human imagination.
Her poignant story firmly roots me in reality and I remind myself never to become complacent about the striking differences between her world and mine, and to be glad for the changes which work to shrink the world into one community.
Having a green-feathered bird to talk to on the other end of the line helps enormously in remembering the ease with which I live my life.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Ghost of a Chance

"Without mysteries, life would be very dull indeed. What would be left to strive for if everything were known?"
-Charles de Lint

My uncle travelled to New York a few years ago to take part in a parade that honoured his fellow police officers. When it was complete he paid a visit to neighbouring New Jersey and stepped into a bar for some refreshment.
After a while he struck up a conversation with an elderly man. It transpired that the latter was from Ireland too though he had been living in America for a long time.
It turned out after some small talk that the man was also from my uncle's side of Ireland, from the same county, which boasts a reasonable population of about 160,000.
My uncle chanced to mention the tiny village he grew up in and asked if his new acquaintance had heard of it. The village in question has about 600 people living within its boundaries.
Sure enough, the fellow declared with a slow dawning expression of incredulity, that he was familiar with the village- very much so. As a matter of fact he had visited his own relative there every summer of his childhood long ago, far before my uncle's time.
My relative, wise to every house in the diminutive locale of his youth, enquired as to what the family name might have been.
Between the two of them they at last established that the house one of them visited as a boy was the same house the other had grown up in. I grew up there too. Mater still lives there.
The house is more than a hundred years old and we were all aware of the name of the man who lived in the house ever before my family did. We knew nothing of him but his name and that his era had long since passed.
At the age of eleven I wrote a poem about him- or rather, about his spirit, which I whimsically imagined to be hovering in the atmosphere of the cottage I am sure he passed away in.
My uncle travelled four thousand miles for a work-related purpose, wandered as a tourist from the focal point of his visit, and in a randomly chosen bar on an inauspicious Autumn afternoon met a man who knew a particular house as well as he did.
Certain things in this world can be planned, accounted for, arranged, aligned and constructed in a nice orderly fashion to keep the world ticking over soundly. When we step into an area of uncategorisable and unresolvable matters, however, and come face to face with highly improbable coincidences, it shakes our nerve and leaves us wondering how much we really know about anything.
I would like to think that the pair, upon recovering from their curious encounter, raised their glasses and offered a toast to the departed old man who linked their lives.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Spin Doctor

"It is the ability to take a joke, not make one, that proves you have a sense of humour."
-Max Eastman

It was not so very long ago that Mater got her first brand new washing machine. Prior to that the appliance she used had been quite possibly second or third hand and before that it was a plastic tub or the sink. In any case, acquiring a new model was a rare and hard-earned treat.
That evening she nervously set the machine to clean the first bundle of laundry. Never was housework so full of expectation.
When the cycle ended my mother happened to be busy elsewhere and my cousin saw an opportunity. He opened the door of the washing machine, removed the soaking wet clothes and hid them in a corner. He then placed a batch of dry, clean garments into the machine. He quietly slipped into the next room to read a newspaper and wait for the world to turn upside down.
In a few minutes, sure enough, my mother came dashing into the living room, breathless and flabbergasted.
"Look! Look what the washing machine does! Feel that. It's all dry. It's dry!" My innocent mother was so startled at the magic of a washing machine that dried clothes without being asked to.
I do not recall quite how it was revealed that she had been tricked, so I cannot confirm what was said but my cousin most likely still laughs himself to sleep at the rather inspired and clever deception. One must applaud him for the spontaneity of the joke.
Had I the money, I would immediately buy Mater such a stupendous dual-purpose washing machine and enable her to maintain a modicum of her delightful innocence and good sense of humour.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Bended Knee

"They're funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you're having them."
-From Winnie the Pooh

When I was five- I had barely begun my schooldays- I went out visiting with Mater and my brother to see some relatives who lived locally.
At the end of the afternoon my brother and I climbed into the back of the car and prepared to go home.
We buckled up our seatbelts. I remember that I was clutching a chocolate caramel bar called a Chomp which at that time cost a mighty ten pence.
As Mater began to cruise slowly out of the driveway I perceived that there was something a little odd about my right knee. It had a muddy partial footprint on it, and there was a considerably deep hole underneath.
My knee was bent; the hole enlarged some more. I felt no pain but I had the distinct impression that I ought to send out some sort of a warning signal. I could see the bone at that point and I leaned forward and tapped Mater lightly on the shoulder.
"I have a hole in my knee," said I quietly.
A word to the wise: the softly-softly approach only serves to undermine the urgency of such a situation. My lack of noise led Mater to believe that I was wholly exaggerating.
That is why she retorted without looking back, "be quiet and stop whinging."
I did not know what else to do. I put my hand over my knee, but the damage was winking at me. I was wearing a red dress and I tried to pull the material over the yawning wound so that I would not have to look at it. There was no blood. It did not hurt. But it was still rather disturbing.
I made another effort.
"I do have a hole in my leg. It's getting bigger."
Mater sighed once, a long and exhausted exhalation, and kept driving, bumping along the rickety roads.
I knew that the journey home was not terribly long so I gave up and hoped Mater would not stop for milk and eggs and cabbage and butter and bread and tea and sugar on the way.
I handed my brother the melting Chomp.
"You can have this," I said feebly. I had gone right off the idea. He took the chocolate bar and munched it happily, engrossed in a comic and not at all attentive to the low whining of his travelling companion and sister.
We reached home. I insisted that I could not get out of the car. Mater pulled open the door and made me get out.
She took one look at my leg, at my half-indignant 'well-I-told-you-so' expression, threw me back into the car almost as speedily as my brother had accepted the chocolate bar, roared the car into action and sped to the nearby doctor's surgery where he stitched me up and left me with the souvenir of a one-inch scar on my knee that remains to this day. I missed about one week of school, which at that time felt like an eternity, and I joined Mater at her workplace every day because of my inability to walk.
We suspect that a broken ashtray, of the plastic kind that typically used to be attached to the inside of a car door, had slashed my knee when the door was closed. How that went unnoticed at the time is a riddle and where the mystifying footprint came from no soul will ever know.
I say, poor Mater. For she still bears that knowledge and guilt and of course my bringing it up time and again- such as today- cannot help. It being, however, a significant moment in my life, I tend to ponder it aimlessly.
In her defence, she claims that I did not cry. Had I simply shed a tear or two, my mother says, she might have been alarmed enough to take me seriously.
In my defence, I suggest that any child who offers a chocolate bar to her brother in exchange for nothing is in actual fact sending out a high-level signal of the most exigent order.
We all make mistakes, of course, but dear Mater has had to live with hers for a considerable length of time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Calling it a Day

"What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?"
-George Eliot

Oftentimes Spouse and I will discuss birthdays and how we treat ourselves, and we will never quite be able to recall how the conversation began. Yesterday evening was just that way and it conjured some memories.
We do not particularly celebrate each other's birthday. We make little jokes throughout our respective days but no gifts are ever exchanged.
On the first of my birthdays living with Spouse, he forgot about the event entirely and I agreeably chose not to remind him.
Other family members and friends remembered, however, and as the days led rapidly toward my birthday I received various cards from well-wishers.
I aligned the cards on a shelf which just happened to be within Spouse's line of sight. Still, he did not see the collection and so I thought to make no comment.
The day after my birthday Spouse browsed the living room's various objects and spied a colourful crew of cards before I had a chance to pack them away into a cardboard box.
"What are those?" he asked with purest innocence.
I did not know how to answer. When I remained silent, he began to gently examine them one by one.
"Whose birthday is it?" he wanted to know. It was no figment of my imagination: he asked that question with a genuine curiosity.
Then his expression changed entirely. Horror, shock, sadness lapped across his face like a mournful cloud.
It turned out, in the end, to be all my fault; Spouse grew cross with me for not saying a word regarding my birthday and he offered me some silent treatment for a brief period.
My fault, mine, that Spouse left the room so distressed about forgetting the day, that he wished to be alone for a while with his thoughts.
In the end I recall that I had to go forth and make amends, as one must do when one's own birthday is neglected.
As I do not much mind about my birthday one way or the other I said nothing about it and would have continued to leave it at that had Spouse not been inspired to remember.
One evening some years ago Spouse returned from work and immediately began to make certain comments about my housework, quite out of character. Specifically my skills were lacking in one area: he said that I had not made the bed well enough.
I insisted that I had, that it was neat and tidy.
No, said Spouse, it was not right. I ought to make it a little better.
I refused.
Spouse and I battled it out for a long few minutes, he telling me calmly that I should plump up the pillows and tuck in the sheets and make the bed properly, and my demanding that he leave housekeeping matters to me.
At last I relented and furiously took hold of a pillow just to gain some peace.
There were chocolate eggs hidden underneath.
That was the first and last time Spouse brought me a surprise of any sort. We have long ago decided that it is best to avoid such matrimonial complications whenever possible.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gentlemen Are Salisfactoyed

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."

Gentlemen are salisfactoyed for the tiaditional technology the moden time leisure styles are simple and natural. it appeared the modern style and men s handsome activity.
This garment is soft comfartlle and shrunk through special washing process natural and unique look actieved.

Mater's friends recently went to Portugal and returned bearing gifts, one of which included a t-shirt with those words on a label. Mater saw it and laughed and sent it on to me; I saw it and laughed and thought initially to write about it from a humorous point of view.
But there is more, as there is with everything. What harder battle is there to fight than in a dire situation and in a language not one's own? This poor fellow in a distant country was perhaps consigned to invent some sort of description for the item of clothing that the tag was attached to.
Beyond the glaring hilarity of one man's grammatical errors and invented verbiage, there is a deeper element to speak of, one that works men's fingers to the bone and rubs away at their souls in order to procure some degree of a life.
Gentlemen are salisfactoyed; but not all men are considered gentlemen: instead, this concerns those fellows on the lowest rung of society, for whom there is no such thing as a weekend or a moment to spare or any end in sight at all.
One person in this story had the luxury of buying the garment as a present for a friend while on a trip to another country; another had the luxury of passing on the funniest part by post, which is not cheap; and lastly, one person had the luxury of sitting down and writing about the matter in a moment of whimsy and lavish self-reflection- a concept entirely unknown, I expect, to the oblivious fellow who started this chain of events.
How far, I wonder, would a desperate man go to provide for his family? How many new words would he construct in hopes of earning that evening's crust? It seems to me that the label's text is a representation of creativity of a kind I am not accustomed to: creativity born out of fear, most likely, and cornered until something useful is hammered into the world.
Recently at my Spouse's workplace somebody asked him what I do. Spouse replied that I write. The person wished to know if I write for a newspaper or if I have had work published. When told that I do not write for money, nor do I work in any real sense of the word, his reaction was to loudly exclaim, "so you're going to support her for the rest of her life, or what?"
The colleague is quite wrong in his assumptions about Spouse and I; I am grateful every day for the fact that I have the privilege to sit and savour the pleasures of doing what I love in an easy and inspiring environment, surrounded by my cherished books, hot tea within reach and all about me endless sheets of inky paper.
Spouse works to put food on our table but that is a struggle of a different sort. Because of our circumstance, it by default lacks the desperation, sleepless nights, gnawing hunger and feverish fight that burns too many people who cannot even conceive of philosophical notions- not because of any lack of intellect but because their treacherous, soul destroying routine leaves no room for such indulgences.
So, yes, I stay at home and yes, I write for the sheer joy of it; and on occasions like today I am driven to mention those that write because their lives depend upon it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Water Babies

"We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today."
-Stacia Tauscher

Eight years ago in Ireland I was wandering by a nearby lake when I sat down on the grassy bank and began to watch a group of children playing in the water.
One little boy, who was unfortunately overweight for his age, was clearly the least popular because his friends suddenly looked at him, laughed and scrambled from the water while he was not looking, in an attempt to get away from him.
The poor boy was not quick to understand that they were playing a trick on him, and he kept calling both for them to come back and for his parents to look at him as he tried to swim.
It was heartbreaking.
Finally, magically, he began to float, and he was swimming. He was stunned by his own ability. Sadly, not one of his friends and not one adult turned around when he began calling for them to see him, to look at him.
Only I saw it, and I never forgot.
I wrote the following poem almost immediately after returning home that afternoon.

Water Babies

Four water babies enjoying the Summer sun;
I passed by the lake in the midst of their play.
Three jumped from the water, left their friend alone
Though he cried for them to wait: this poem is for him.

He stayed when he realised they were gone.
He stood lonely, knee deep in humiliation
and then, bravely, taught himself to swim
in the shallow water: this poem is for him.

I broke a little at the sight:
his family distanced and their backs all turned
never seeing the significance of his moment.
"I'm doing it!" he cried to no one: this poem is for him.


Congratulations: Jaime!

My mother has been checking this page all the day long and really, truly wishes to know who won the Calvin and Hobbes book.
I refused to tell her over the telephone and insisted that she find out by the same method as everybody else.
Hurray to Jaime.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Family Thing

"It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting!"
-Agatha Christie

Two of Mater's three brothers are police officers in Ireland; the third is an accountant.
A few years ago Spouse and I were visiting Ireland and we decided to visit each of my uncles in turn in their respective parts of the country.
We drove first to my uncle who lives by the sea in a very small town. It was New Year's Eve and we wanted to see the fireworks display.
My aunt and cousin and Spouse and I all set off; my uncle, who was on duty, was to meet us later.
In the buzzing crowd we were cajoled this way and that as we prepared for the show to begin. We were sheltered in a far corner of the harbour among at least a thousand people.
I wondered idly how my uncle would locate us all- we had not told him where we would be as we could not have known beforehand. I hoped he would find us in time.
Shortly before midnight I saw my uncle at a distance slicing his way through the masses. He was walking straight toward us without a fluster or a hesitation, not even turning his head to look around, despite the fact that I knew he could not possibly see us from his position.
He strolled to where we were huddled and began to converse about the fireworks as though nothing had happened.
I could not contain my astonishment.
"But how did you find us?" I gasped. "In all these people, how did you know where we were?"
He looked right at me and said,
"it's a police thing."

The following week we chose to visit another uncle in a neighbouring county. We had not driven to their home before and there was some confusion. At the last minute we decided that our best option was to call the family from our cell phone and ask somebody to meet us in the nearby town and lead us to the house. My uncle happily agreed and arranged to call us when he himself was in the town.
Spouse and I soon discovered that there were no landmarks to speak of and we finally stopped the car outside a pub; at least if my uncle called we could tell him that much.
We sat in the car in the gloom of Winter, long after the sun had gone down, and waited anxiously. We felt sorry that my uncle had to inconveniently leave his cosy fireside and venture into the night to search for us.
Despite our rental car being unfamiliar to my uncle and regardless of the darkness, his car soon pulled to a halt beside us. He had spent no time in looking for us and had glided up quietly beside us as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I had to ask.
"How did you find us?"
This is no word of a lie: he looked right at me and said,
"it's a police thing."

Then there was just my accountant uncle left to see and we met him in Dublin in the bustle of a typical workday. Mater, Spouse and I sat in a crowded cafe in a shopping mall and waited for him. There were many corners and nooks in the cafe and for one moment I wryly wondered how he would find us.
He appeared at our table as though he carried a mystical map of his family members' precise whereabouts.
Without quite meaning to, I made a sly joke: "how did you find us?"
Before he was able to answer I disclosed his siblings' recent otherworldly exploits in detecting people's positions.
He is not a police officer and so he could hardly deliver the same reply.
Still, without missing a beat, he looked right at me and said with a faint smile, "ah. It's a family thing."
Good enough, I say. Good enough.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Going With the Flow

"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open."
-Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India

When my brother was about fifteen he saved up all his money and bought a yellow dinghy.
One day shortly after his purchase he walked to the river, which was about one mile away, and I, three years younger, trailed like a dutiful sibling behind him. He carried the new boat, a pump and some supplies. No doubt I carried something too and made myself useful.
He was going on an expedition to see a friend who also lived near to a river. He would arrive at his friend's house by a non traditional means.
We reached the river, climbed down onto the grassy bank and proceeded to prepare my brother for takeoff.
It was a rather narrow river- more like a stream, really- and I expect that my brother was the first ever to try to use it for transport. In some places the river would be barely wide enough for his vessel to skim through.
Almost as soon as my brother began to put air into the boat the foot pump broke. He was aghast; the weather was hot and he did not wish to walk home again without meeting his friend.
I was horrified when my industrious brother began resolutely to pump up the boat with his mouth. I watched him grow redder and redder and the afternoon grew hotter and hotter and I was fearful for him. He would not listen to reason and he succeeded in filling up that dinghy with the air in his lungs. I think that it took about thirty minutes.
Finally he was ready to sail. I stood on the shore among the reeds and tall grasses and watched my brother float away.
Then he was a yellow blur cruising among the Summer greenery.
Then he was gone.
I walked back by myself, of course, in the blistering sun and wondered all the way there how he was faring and all the day long, too, if he had been blown off course like an intrepid explorer in a storm, or if he had actually reached his friend's home. I was concerned not merely because he was my only brother but because I had personally assisted and had set him on his path. As a direct accomplice I had much to worry about.
My sibling mercifully returned home before nightfall, as planned, but to our surprise it was by car. His explorations had led him to his friend's house where he had tied up the boat in a remote and untrampled field.
Hours later, when he went to fetch it again and drift home, the boat had vanished. It was not to be found anywhere and somebody had to drive him home.
He mourned the loss of his boat and his savings for a very long time and nobody ever established what happened to it.
But I do not suppose for one moment that my brother is sorry he had his adventure- after all, accomplishing what one set out to do is the only thing that means anything in this world.

*The book giveaway ends Saturday night; I thought I would put out a little last-minute reminder in case any Calvin and Hobbes readers are interested.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

For the Birds

"The leaves of memory seemed to make a mournful rustling in the dark."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I was eleven I was given two birds for my birthday, one male green and one blue female budgie. Their names were immediately designated as Buddy and Holly in recognition of their superb musical talents.
That in itself caused some people to be startled. My aunt visited often in those early days with her small son, who loved the novelty of my pet birds; whenever he returned to his home the tiny child would astonish his neighbours by chattering about Buddy Holly. His listeners could not imagine how a two or three year old child might know about the ill-fated singer.
One day not long after I got the birds, my brother and I were home alone when a fellow knocked on our door. He was there to read the electricity meter inside the house.
As he was making his notes he caught sight of the birds.
I told him excitedly about them and what their names were. After a quick perusal he said solemnly,
"I know birds. You've got two males there."
My brother and I were adamant that we knew the man who had sold them; he was a friend of the family and I had asked for a boy and a girl and named them accordingly. He would neither have made a mistake or cheated us.
"Definitely," said our visitor. "You won't be able to breed them."
I had childishly looked forward to generations of baby birds and was completely devastated. I gather the man was sorry he had told us, and he went on his way regretfully.
The birds lived for eleven more years, dying within six months of each other after a long and hearty life and shortly before I left home to go to the United States.
In 2006 I had to return to Ireland- for more than a very long year as it turned out- to prepare paperwork to rejoin my Spouse.
The birds had been a pleasant part of the household for so long that their absence was still palpable, especially given that I had been living away from home for most of the time they had been gone and I had not really lived at that house without them.
One afternoon through an open window I caught voices outside; my cousin was speaking to a fellow in a van by the side of the road.
"I pass by this house every day. I never stop but I always remember two children in there, and they had budgies that I told them were both male. I'll never forget it."
Fifteen years later, there was our former meter-reader reminiscing about a brief event in which he delivered some bad news- something which he had thought about for a decade and a half every time he drove past the house. And I, who ought not to have been at home in those circumstances was there to hear it.
Naturally I went outside and introduced myself and the man was quite taken aback in the first place that I would remember the incident, and in the second that I might be there at all just as I had been all those years before.
When I think of that fitting and evenly-concluded encounter, I wonder too if somewhere out there, a group of now-elderly women are getting together and remembering a prodigious child they used to know who was familiar with Buddy Holly.
I think that two birds never travelled so far and so long.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


"We call a child's mind "small" simply by habit; perhaps it is larger than ours is, for it can take in almost anything without effort."
-Christopher Morley

My friend's nephew, who is three, is soon to start pre-school. Prior to this he had been regularly spending his afternoons with my friend's two year old son.
The younger child is quite lively and has unfortunately been known to injure the three year old in a moment of playfulness. The older chap will consistently defend his friend, however, when things get out of hand.
"He didn't mean to bite me," the child will urge; or "he was just playing, really."
My friend claims that all the other children in the family shrink into a corner when they see the smaller fellow coming for a visit- he is a perfectly delightful baby and superbly smart but I am merely recording what his mother has said.
Her nephew, however, takes all the energetic beating-about with good humour and he sticks up for his little friend.
He recently went along to his would-be school to spend the day in order to get acquainted with the environment and other children, so that come September it might feel more natural.
The boy felt it his duty to alert the teacher to his demanding schedule.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I can only come to school in the mornings. I babysit. He bites me- look!" and he proceeded to show the teacher a mark on his elbow as evidence of his daily duties.
That fellow possesses something that is in short supply among grown ups.
The power of forgiveness is endangered. One might well argue, "but it was a child that bit him, who didn't know any better."
Certainly- but the injured party is only three years old and hardly expected to be conscious of the fact that it was an accident.
We are indeed guides and role models for children- but sometimes we can learn from them too.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My Face

"If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older."
-Tom Stoppard

I feel obliged to reflect on the above words: Mr. Stoppard must surely be acquainted with my mother.
I received a wonderful Mater-package last week and inside it, among the teabags and books, was a little plastic keyring for Spouse. Tucked into the tiny frame was a miniaturised photograph of me at about nine years old, hands over my face, one eye peeking out with vehement truculence. I was clearly very angry about something or other; I most certainly had not wanted to have my picture taken, never mind having it delivered to my Spouse one Summer's day years later.
Reader, think for one moment, what it means for me that Spouse is now happily using it to carry his many keys:
it means that every time we go driving I see my infuriated eye staring at me as the keys weave back and forth with the uneven rhythm of the road; it means that every time Spouse and I let ourselves into the apartment- there I am, caught in time, captured in a particularly unflattering moment.
I said to Spouse- of course it did no good whatsoever, since he continues to use it, even holding it up to the light while in my presence to capture the essence of the thing- to consider just a little how he might feel if I regularly displayed a photograph of my crying, sulking Spouse everywhere I wandered.
He is so good-natured, however, that it is a redundant point. I must simply learn to live with my face on a keyring, and that is that.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Something is Afoot

"I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money."
-Pablo Picasso

I flung open the closet door this weekend after an excursion to the grocery store. In place of friendly emptiness I was suddenly lambasted and pelted with shoes of all kinds: slippers, running shoes, dress shoes, flip flops, work shoes, sandals, interview shoes, boots and miscellaneous footwear galore. Sixteen pairs- that amounts to thirty two shoes- threw themselves at my bewildered person like oversized hailstones of leather.
"Are we having a party?" I queried, looking around for the guests that could potentially leap forth and cry "surprise!" for no particular reason.
Spouse knew nothing of any hiding visitors. There we both were, stranded among the accumulation, having had a veritable shower rain down most unexpectedly upon us.
It turned out in the end that the shoes belonged to us, each and every one of them. We had not, before that point, put all our shoes together in one place and the result was the shocking discovery that Spouse and I are not yet living as simply as we would like to.
Life was far more elementary when one pair of shoes could carry a man through society with a fair amount of dignity.
Things have become so very complicated in the modern world that we have distinct and demanding shoe needs for the various places and functions we attend; one cannot wear running shoes to work, of course, nor slippers to a party, nor rain boots about the house.
I understand all that perfectly well but it does not solve the distressing problem of excessive and needless complication.
I myself am not even what one would term a Shoe Person; I loathe shoe stores, the endless waste of precious time slipping on pair after pair, the hawkish salespeople.
My mother spent most of my life attempting to keep me upright whenever we went to a store to buy new shoes. If I did not fall into a slumber from apathy I was mentally surveying the enticing book haven next door and wondering how long the day's shoe business would take Mater to accomplish- even if it was my own feet that needed to be shod.
My favourite part of Shoe Day was bringing home the cardboard boxes to play with or to store things in.
So I wonder. I wonder how it is for people that love shoes and shoe stores and collecting things, and I wonder how to separate Spouse and I from any of the masses of shoes that we have somehow come to own. Because it appears that we need each one.
That can hardly be possible- can it?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Going the Extra Mile

"Men are respectable only as they respect."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had my first driving lesson in a place where my instructor- a California friend- was certain that I would harm nobody.
We went to an old cemetery.
I did a number of laps in relative peace and safety. Of course I was still terrified and no doubt my friend was nervous.
I admire people who are brave enough to teach somebody to drive at the risk of their own car. Not so Spouse I am afraid, who preferred to purchase old Mrs. Doyle for me so that I could have my own car to practice in.
Spouse has protected our car since the day he bought it ten years ago. He arrived in the United States unable to drive, with almost no experience even travelling in cars, and decided that he needed to learn. So he did, and so he passed his test and bought a brand new car a few weeks later.
Always careful and respectful, Spouse has never taken chances with it and never exceeded a reasonable speed.
Once, we drove to the most Northern part of California, and meandered among the Redwood trees in the Avenue of the Giants. There was a magnificent tree so large that one could drive right through its trunk. Many tourists did, and still do. We went there and admired the tree, whereupon Spouse declined to manouever the car through the enormous body.
There was minimal danger to the paintwork of the car but Spouse did not wish to test fate. Not so much as a scratch would he gamble on- and not for any material reason but simply for being aware that everything has its limits and that even machines demand our appreciative care and respect.
This week, after our trip to Maine, Spouse did a calculation and noted to both our surprise that the car's mileage was good. Very good in fact and far better than we had imagined.
Our expected rate was 24 miles per gallon given the common standard, the car's age, its recent trouble, and having studied others of the same model.
Instead, our result was 34 miles per gallon- and how proud Spouse was, how glad then that he perpetually treated the car like new.
That attitude has repaid him in kind.
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