Friday, February 29, 2008
"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on."
There is something enigmatic about mothers and the art of letting go: the two are interwoven enduringly beyond human capacity to understand.
I asked mine to give me away at my wedding- it was a last minute decision as I had not anticipated the necessity of the role- and she honoured my request by walking arm in arm with me toward my soon-to-be Spouse.
Mater was enrobed in pink, with a lacy cardigan and she looked exquisite.
I looked rather like a mermaid, in a shimmering sea of purple, blue and pink. I had around my shoulders a purple shawl, and I was wearing a most lovely new watch, a delicate and thoughtful wedding present from our friends.
We proceeded to the front and our priest announced that Mater should now step back and give me away to the groom.
Mater stepped back all right but she did not get particularly far.
Her lacy cardigan and my shining watch- both artfully conspired to hold us together for one more moment. It was a mighty long moment, though, as we bent heads and disentangled the threads from the silver. There were murmurs from the assembled friends and family. We picked away until, finally, we were separated.
Our priest quipped brightly, "you didn't want to let her go, did you?"
Take what may be had from the tale; but assuredly there is something to be said about mothers and letting go.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:17 AM
Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know...
When I first met my Spouse he was sharing a house with a number of other tenants. Spoken like that it sounds, on the tongue, to be rather poetic and to flow well but the situation was far from pleasant.
I came to stay, as it turned out, for less than three weeks: we fully intended to find our own apartment and remove ourselves from the peculiar people and dreadfully uncomfortable living arrangements.
During my brief sojourn there I was made witness to a rather nasty atmosphere and wholly supported the decision to leave. Living with strangers is always a gamble and in our case it was a disaster. I am certain, though, that one member of the household came to know my thoughts and that I regarded him with a hearty measure of contempt.
My Spouse has always preferred to eat meals while standing, most especially in contrast to sitting at work for long hours.
One evening we were eating supper together in the shared kitchen. Spouse was standing, I was sitting comfortably. The individual entered the room and proceeded to forage in cupboards noisily. He paused all of a sudden, turned to my Spouse and demanded, "why are you always standing up?"
My Spouse stopped chewing. I looked at the speaker with bewilderment. It seemed a ghastly and rude thing to say to a person whom one does not know particularly well, and in the company of another that one met a few days previously.
My Spouse, ever amiable, replied gently, "I sit all day at work. I just like to eat while standing."
"Weird," muttered the Other. He returned to his task of digging in the cupboards.
I laid down my fork and my knife. I pushed back my chair. I stood up from the counter I had been dining at, picked up my plate, turned my back on the churlish fellow and continued to eat my meal while- as some might say- being weird.
Of course I could not see his face when he turned around once more but I perceived the terribly long hush and gathered satisfactorily that the message was being conveyed and received in a direct and open manner.
I turned the tables on him, so to speak, and undid his horrid work.
I write about it years later not for any bitter reason but to recall with gladness a moment when I, trembling and newly arrived in the country, put my Spouse's feelings ahead of my timidity and did something that I thought was right.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:13 AM
Seven, devastated, hurt to the core
when the White Coat said "glasses for her."
Ridicule, difficult schooldays ahead
Shortsighted but foresight quite clear.
Seven years old and crestfallen, bad news:
"Soon be the bearer of spectacles."
"But some GOOD news ahead," the Wise One beamed
A glimmer, but dubious and skeptical.
"You MIGHT not need them-" the Doctor paused
"-any more by the time you turn forty."
A door, briefly open, now slammed with a thud
All hope was swept right out to sea.
Seven years old and the fortieth year
Too far to behold, no concern.
What silver lining with half a life spent?
Not a shred that I could discern.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:12 AM
Thursday, February 28, 2008
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset...
Our friends have a small son and they live on twenty rented acres of lush land in Northern Maine. The little one has an enormous back garden to run around in and he does so with a zest that overwhelms us adults.
When last we visited it was Summertime and he, then a year and a half old, was clamouring every moment to be outdoors. When evening came he was hurrying to be outside with his mama so that they could water the flowers together.
The most astounding thing, however, is what he did when he got the opportunity to gambol and caper on the pasture. He would race like a wild thing, and then stop and stand perfectly still.
There was a special flat stone in the field that he always did his particular thinking on.
One evening as dusk was approaching we watched the child on his stone and it seemed as though he were listening to something beyond us. Then- Spouse and I witnessed it ourselves- he stretched his tiny little hands up to the clouds, took a momentous, deep breath, and cried,
"ahhhhh. Sky. BIG."
Yes, it is vast. We had almost quite forgotten.
My cousin- he of the wisdom beyond his years and of the docile temper in the face of wrongly-cooked eggs- once took a trip to Spain with his family. He may have been four or five; in any case he was awfully little and it was his first holiday.
The weather was constantly hot and he, being a boy born and bred on the wild Atlantic coast was not at all used to the sunshine and certainly not at such degrees as he experienced.
When they returned home, his mother tells that the child stepped off the plane and into the cloudy downpour.
Smiling, he turned to his mother: "I missed the rain."
Goodness, they do make one feel small and humble at times.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:33 AM
"The kind of humor I like is the thing that makes me laugh for five seconds and think for ten minutes."
There is a well-known American singer that my mother is very fond of. As with a good deal of things that she likes, she encouraged me to take an interest too. My mother discovered the singer last year and, during one particular overseas telephone conversation, she told me that she had heard a very sad story about his life. It seemed that the songwriter had gone away to war, only to return and discover that both his home and his car had been repossessed in his absence.
"It's very sad," cried Mater in defence of the poor, broken man. "He went away, and look at him now."
Something sounded both familiar and odd to me; after a brief listen to the album that my mother had lent me, we determined that it was not, in fact, in any newspaper that she had heard the sorrowful tale- rather, it was embedded in one of the songs. It had not really happened to him at all and she had quite forgotten her source. Oh, how we laughed when I told Mater of her daftness.
Now I cannot listen to that album without a wry smile.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:31 AM
"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company."
I was twenty and working my weekend job as a waitress in a city restaurant. It was late and it was quiet and the dining room was empty. I was cleaning a table shortly after ten thirty when three people walked in. I briefly glanced up at them: a couple that appeared to be in their fifties, and a much younger lady. A family, I thought quickly as I hurried to finish what I had been working on. I showed them to a corner table and scurried off to fetch menus. When I returned, the younger lady was not with them so I left three menus, presuming that she had dashed to the restroom.
I waited a few minutes before bringing them some water and they acknowledged their readiness to order. I pulled out my pen and paper and noted down what they requested. They ordered two meals. It is not uncommon for patrons to share a plate so I thought nothing of that; but just in case I had missed an item I thought I had better verify.
"Will the other person be having anything?"
"No, it's just us, tonight," the man said with politeness.
I hesitated. Often, too, patrons slipped away discreetly when they calculated that they could not afford the high price of a dinner. I had never, though, seen one member of a party leave while the other two remained. As a token of goodwill I had many times assisted embarrassed customers to escape without awkwardness- they had confided their problem to me and, not wishing to upset the remainder of the staff had asked me to loudly point them in the direction of the restroom and pretend calmly that they would be coming back. I was always happy to do so and feign confusion afterward at the abandoned menus.
Now I was puzzled. Like a dog with a bone I refused to let go.
"Is she coming back or will you go ahead and eat without her?"
"Is who coming back?"
"Your companion. Is she staying?"
"Is who staying?"
Round and round we went. I must clarify that I did this to avoid confusion because too many times diners ordered one thing and then claimed something else; I wanted to hear them say that the girl had left.
"The person that was with you. Did she change her mind?"
The conversation was drawing blank looks from both the man and the woman. The scene was an odd one: I was the crazy waitress and all they wanted was a meal.
I pointed to the three menus. "That's why I left three menus."
"It's only the two of us. Could we just have our order, please?"
I was irked. I decided to say not another word about it and swept up the menus and firmly marched away. I was livid.
I returned moments later with fresh bread and water for the well-dressed couple. They said a curt 'thank you' and I moved quickly away from their table.
Five minutes later, to my surprise, they beckoned me to come over to them.
The first thing I noticed was that the gentleman was paler than a few minutes previously. His wife was faring no better. They were genuinely upset. I wondered if I might be in a spot of bother for arguing with them.
The man said that he had something to tell me, but his wife prodded him and shook her head. She did not want him to tell me. I could not have known what was coming but the next words made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up like faint tiny soldiers in preparation for a battle they could not fathom.
The woman interrupted and, despite her initial assertion that I ought not to be told, launched into the reason that they now both shook in front of me.
"We go out to restaurants a lot, every weekend in fact," the woman trembled. "We’ve gone out every weekend for years and years. Our daughter is out with friends, at a party tonight. It is the very first time ever that she has not come out with us. Ever. We’re missing her very much tonight. We have been thinking of her all evening."
I can still hear vividly the exact words as they smacked, one by one, into my chest.
The room wobbled a little and then righted itself.
I did not know at all what to say to them. My mouth opened but I knew nothing sensible could come out of it.
Apparently my insistence had frightened them very much. The man and woman were most astonished at my stubbornness and absolute certainty that they had not been alone. After all, I had practically stamped my feet and demanded they admit that there was indeed a third person with them.
I could only repeat to the couple that I had observed them with a girl who I had reasonably assumed to be their daughter. We all fell silent. There was not much left to be said or done and I struggled to carry on with the remainder of my shift while my mind was further from my work than was suitable.
The couple ate their meal when it was placed in front of them but I doubt very much that they tasted any of it. I shall never forget that in the middle of their muted meal the gentleman all of a sudden stood up and stepped briskly out to the lobby to place a telephone call.
They did not stay for dessert.
I never saw them again.
Goodness knows what it all meant. I would prefer to think that the daughter, while having a wonderful evening with friends, was still in company with her parents thanks to an incomprehensibly strong bond.
Oh yes, the waitress is always right.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:16 AM
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
"Character develops itself in the stream of life."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When I was fifteen I came to an English class a few minutes early and overheard, to my horror, fellow students discussing The Essay. They were debating the essay I had not given a single thought to.
I vaguely recalled that our teacher had mentioned it the previous week; she had given us ample time to complete the assignment and in that particular class no excuses were accepted. I froze for just a moment, and then set to work just as the bell rang. Our teacher, normally on time, was not present yet and I thought that if I worked very quickly I might be able to add a line or two during the class as she spoke, and present it, completed, at the end.
The essay was to be two pages in length, and on the subject of strength of character as it related to a novel we were studying.
As I wrote furiously, words spilling from my mind and pen, and mouth too as I spoke the tumbling words aloud, I noticed that a small group had gathered around me. I paid almost no attention to the onlookers; I was torn between constructing an essay to save my skin and keeping an eye on the classroom door for the same purpose.
The students were watching me with interest. Once they understood my plan, I idly overheard a few say that I would never make it; there was no time; our teacher was going to kill me.
I wrote with a walloping, frantic surge. I was breathless, hardly stopping to think about the words.
All that mattered was to get an essay down on paper, and ensure that it connected loosely with the subject. If our teacher determined that it was not worthy, it still would be a better outcome than if I supplied no work at all. I had an audience of many. None imagined that I would succeed in my endeavour.
Two minutes passed. and then three. Our teacher was five minutes late, and then six. I could hardly believe my good fortune and her uncommon lack of punctuality had combined in such a way as to possibly further my odds of surviving the class.
Finally, ten minutes later than usual, our teacher walked in and, unusually, demanded our papers immediately. I was perfectly fine with that for I had completed the given task and had, to my own surprise, written two pages. I scarcely knew myself what I had put down on paper. I do remember the looks on the faces of those who knew my secret and why my face was flushed as I, trembling, passed my work to the front of the classroom. I believe I came close to fainting that morning and I sat through the remainder of the class in a sort of numb, foggy daze.
On the following day we all waited anxiously to hear news of how our essays had fared. At the very least I had completed mine, thought I with no shortage of sweet relief. Our teacher held an essay in her hand and informed the entire class that she was about to select and read one particular essay. With a shock, I recognised the manic, erratic handwriting that swept across the facing page. My heart sank like a great lump of stone. Being singled out by that teacher meant only disaster.
Transfixed and in silence, all of us in that classroom listened as our teacher read out what she considered to be the best essay. She admonished the rest of the class for not being up to standard. She mused that I surely must have put a lot of work and thought into the material. Those were her words. She said many fine things about my writing. I could feel every eye lingering on me, certain that every mouth was agape and that I could finally confirm what I had always suspected: in a classroom, the teacher's wrath is not the only thing to be avoided at all costs.
The central theme of the essay was character, and the proof that one ought never to give up. As regards such traits, I am convinced that we learn as we go. Sometimes that happens day by day, and sometimes, word by word.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:11 AM
I had a hat.
It was not all a hat,
Part of the brim was gone:
Yet still I wore it on.
-Rhine Song of the German Soldiers,1834
Every family has an Aunt with a formidable 'A' and we had ours. I use the past tense only because the character that was my mother's Aunt has vanished. She now lives in a nursing home and when she saw me last mistakenly addressed me as Anthony from England. So far as any of us know she is not acquainted with such a person and considering that if anything, I would be Anthonia, one can see that things are no longer as they were.
In her day, though, she made us all groan inwardly when news of her impending visit dawned. She was stern and exacted particular manners from young people, she did not jest a whit and while very generous was inordinately stubborn and never took no for an answer.
As a result of our relative's determination my mother underwent a hair-colouring experiment some years ago that her Aunt promised would be successful and would make my grey-haired mother's life better. It was not and it did not.
One of my first memories is of her taking my mother and I out to lunch. I had a burger and she caught me picking out the detested onions. She was furious with my mother for letting me do so and predicted terrible things for my future if I did not eat what was good for me.
I got the better of her once and once only. She visited our home unexpectedly and I, at about the age of fifteen, was caught unawares.
We had a small dog at the time who, while decent and amiable, did not like to be surprised by strangers. As she entered our gate he lunged at the Aunt. I held him back as well as I could, and indicated through my struggles that she hurry indoors quickly. She did not, preferring instead to lecture me on something insignificant while standing near to me. My energy depleted, I was forced to let go of the wriggling animal, and he bounced toward her. She was furious and dashed indoors. She herself savaged me verbally regarding the matter and insisted that I should have held him for longer.
I was livid with her. For the first time in my life I chose not to sit down and listen to it. I told her, the Upright Aunt, that I had held the dog for as long as I could; that I had warned her, and that, lastly, if she wished to go and stand outside our gate where there were no canines I would be happy to bring her a cup of tea. In other words, I told her to get out.
We had short words but she was rather muted by the whole thing, and made light of it. It was soon forgotten but I like to think she respected me a little more after that. I wrote a short story about her that very evening which was shown to most of the family with the exception, of course, of the Aunt, who had gone back home by then.
Not surprisingly, it was a delightfully wicked story about an Aunt who got her comeuppance.
Our Aunt liked expensive things such as make-up, coats and hats. Ah, she liked hats. Somebody once sat heavily on a very expensive and fancy red hat of hers. She left it at our home to be mended and it stayed in our house for months until we had forgotten all about it.
During the interim I had a moment of mischief and thought that I would briefly don the hat for amusement. It had a gigantic wide brim and was truly obnoxious and ostentatious which made the situation one to laugh at. I then decided that for once I would add some make-up to my face. I slathered lipstick, blusher and eyeshadow by the bucket-load. I thought that I might as well look the part of the sort of person who might wear such an accessory.
Fully adorned, I considered the effect complete. My mother, bless her, thought I looked a sight, which I was, and she produced a camera. I still have the photograph of myself in that hideous, scarlet contraption.
The Aunt came one day to take away the hat, and to have a cup of tea indoors.
We bore her visit with strength and gritted teeth. She was a very goodhearted and well-meaning person but utterly difficult to sit with for she would calmly and methodically pick away at the nuances of one's life until there was scant little left.
At some point in the evening my mother dragged out the most recent collection of photographs of a trip or other we had taken, or of a birthday- I do not now recall what it was precisely that drove her to commit the most dreadful blunder. For it was not until the Aunt had vanished, gone back to her home and we all breathed a sight of relief, that we belatedly understood she must have seen The Hat photograph: she could hardly have missed the picture, for it was right in the middle of the pile.
A most awful mistake, for which there were no adequate words, no salve or panacea to undo the damage.
At that time I wished fervently to be anybody else in the world except the one who had made a mock of her hat: I would have settled, even then I think, to be Anthony from England.
I adore onions now and eat them, chopped, raw, on a regular basis. The curious thing is that I believe my future is looking rather bright: she would be most pleased.
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."
Spouse and I simply love to eat. We especially like Thai or Indian food but if we find the right restaurant we will eat just about anything set before us. We, as a rule, tend to eat at the same time every day and even going slightly past the hour gnaws at our insides and makes us feel quite faint.
A couple of years ago we entered a Chinese restaurant with a colleague of Spouse's. The fellow had recommended the place to us as a restaurant he frequented, and the entire menu was in his native alphabet. We two could not read it and relied solely upon him to instruct us on the tastiest choices. The menu was not on convenient single sheets of paper but printed on a board hanging behind the counter.
"What does the menu say?"enquired Spouse hungrily.
The friend suggested, curiously, that we all eat the same thing and thus save time in ordering.
"Well, at least let's see what is on the menu," insisted Spouse. "Then we can decide."
The colleague hesitated. I was intrigued. His hesitance was peculiar for its apparent lack of meaning. After all, it was a simple request.
"Well..." he trailed off, all of a sudden squinting at the menu. I suspected that I knew why, but I could not alert my Spouse in order to end the matter discreetly.
"It's hard," he said. "The writing is too small." He shrugged.
Spouse, ferociously hungry now, shook the matter like a rag and would not let go.
"But the menu is right there! Even I can see the words, I just can't understand them."
Spouse's stomach grumbled furiously. Mine muttered in response.
"I don't have my glasses with me," said the colleague desperately.
"Come on," said Spouse jocularly; he had never witnessed the man wearing glasses.
"No, really, I think the words are too small."
Please let it go, I urged my Spouse inwardly.
It went on like that for a time until the poor fellow had no choice but to concede. He admitted, sheepishly, that he could not read the words on the menu because he was no longer familiar with the language and the characters of that alphabet.
After an awkward pause, we all dismissed the matter entirely and pretended that it had not happened. We went on to have a very lovely lunch, following the colleague's suggestion that we all have the same thing.
He ought to have simply told us in the first place instead of covering up for his perfectly reasonable deficiency: not knowing us particularly well at the time, he could hardly have known that my Spouse and I were always famished and forever ready to eat.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:38 AM
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
"To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting."
-E. E. Cummings
A couple of years after I finished school I took a year-long secretarial course at a college in the nearby city. It was not a college course in the ordinary sense: I had to attend from 9 AM until 4 PM five days a week and I could not choose my classes. Nevertheless I enjoyed most of my time there while I was struggling to work out what next to do. I was working, at the time, various odd hours in a supermarket and was trying to merge my studies with my job. I took umbrage at only one class in the entire course and that happened to be a typing class. It went on twice a week for two hours at a time with only a half-hearted break in between for breathing.
I did not get along with my typing teacher. I was, even then, a good typist and had taught myself. The problem lay in the fact that she desired for us to type without looking at the screen. How does one unlearn anything? It was already too late for me to adapt to her way although I tried so hard.
She cared not that I typed fast and well; she wanted to see me do it while looking elsewhere and I could not manage it. There were about fifteen students in our class and it seemed as the days went on that they were improving- most had had no experience typing and as such were pure of finger- and I was falling behind. When they practiced at home, I was working; when they demonstrated the next day she clapped her hands and cheered them on.
I vividly recall one incident toward the end of the first half of the two hours when I had enormous trouble. She would, as a rule, stand behind me with her claw-like hands gripped tightly into my shoulders, and sweetly ask me to type for her without looking. That sort of pressure a student can do without. I do not remember the sentence that on this occasion I was supposed to type but let us say, for example, that it was 'BETTY WENT TO THE STORE FOR SOME CABBAGE AND IT RAINED AND A SLY FOX JUMPED OUT AT HER AND SHE JUMPED OVER THE FENCE AND RAN HOME.'
Or else it was something to that effect. Anyhow, I thought I would try it and see what I might produce. I took a deep breath and started typing what I thought was a paragraph about Betty and a fox. I could feel my heart leaping about in my dry throat and I wished fervently for the whole class to end so that the tension would ease and I could go back to being a good typist again. When the hold on my shoulder tightened and I felt cold breath on my neck, a breath that made the hairs rise, I knew something was wrong.
I looked at what I had written. Betty and her story were unrecognisable.
My teacher was about to speak but she, tight-lipped and stone-faced, thought better of it. She found somebody else to frighten and spent some minutes with them while I examined what I had typed with horror. I do not think that I got a single letter correct.
The bell rang, mercifully. The other students began to shift in their seats. A couple of minutes of gathering my thoughts together would do me no harm at all, thought I. I was about to rise from my chair when I heard my teacher say from the other end of the room, "you can take your break now."
"And you can, too," she said, looking directly at me. Mayhap she intended for me to feel grateful for the gift of joining my fellow classmates.
Even though the other students were steadily getting better it was not, most of the time, sufficient for her and she usually had a miserly, sour thing to say to each of us.
Had she had only released the pressure; had she just relaxed and taught us with kindness and the gentle approach instead of the Clutch of Death on our shoulders; had she had some decent expectations then we students would have fared so much better. After all, I could type- but not to order, not under duress, and not while being barked at.
Softly, softly: much more productive.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:58 AM
"Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger."
Spouse and I went to Ireland for Christmas of 2004.We were fortunate enough during that stay to be offered the gratuitous use of a caravan in remote wilderness by the ocean. I barely knew the family who had suggested it, and Spouse not at all, but somehow we agreed to it and found ourselves driving in the darkness and blinding salty rain along a curvaceous and treacherous bit of road. The trailer was freezing and we were, unsurprisingly for a seaside holiday park at December's end, the sole guests. There were approximately fifteen other holiday homes in the field and the occupants of the house next door were owners and caretakers of the property upon which the caravans sat.
The wind rocked the tiny caravan like fragile paper lanterns and we were sure all night long that the rain was falling not on the vehicle but inside it.
Nevertheless we were happy, and grateful to the goodhearted souls who had bestowed this unexpected kindness on us.
The fact of a complimentary holiday was superseded only by our meeting a man who told us such good stories that we ate, contentedly and without clamour, a Chinese meal with a dead fly at its core. We referred forever after to that dinner, which we consumed in the caravan on our first night, as 'Szechuan Fly.' We were not certain whether the fly landed during our repast or was cooked into it accidentally but no matter: we had eaten most of the feast before either of us thought to ask what that dark ingredient might be. We naturally removed the corpse but goodness knows if it had melted into the food or not.
The owner of the house, a man in what we guessed to be his sixties, came to speak to us briefly on our first evening and again on our second. He had, over the years, become good friends with the owner of the caravan, a person we were not very familiar with. After admitting that most people who knew him well called him John The Mill, he settled in for the evening and launched into a series of stories stretching distant horizons back in his mind about his life and his work. We identified with him on so many levels. He confided that he was considered by locals to be a blow-in, an out-of-towner. We were curious to know two things: where John the Mill had come from, and how long ago he had moved to the current place.
In answer to the first question he responded that he had come from a very small village about two miles over the road.
He further told us that he had come from that tiny place forty years ago.
We were absolutely stunned. We knew all about being outsiders but even to us that was unheard of. A blow-in he might have been, but they were lucky to have him.
We hardly talked at all, my Spouse and I: we simply listened. John the Mill told us mainly about windmills. His great project was windmills, hence his name. He wanted to erect windmills all across the local area for environmental purposes. He was currently working very hard on getting support for his idea. Thoroughly excited to have some listeners, he enthusiastically dashed, almost childlike, out of the caravan in the awful weather and returned with a sagging briefcase full of papers related to the issue. For three hours he sat with us on three consecutive nights as the rain pounded mercilessly on the tin roof. We lost track of the number of times he said that he would tell us just one more story and then leave; he kept remembering more tales and the night descended with him continuing to promise that he was nearly finished.
Every adventure was punctuated with the phrase, 'between the jigs and the reels,' which was his way of saying 'eventually, after all that...' I suggested that he write a book about his life and call it just that. He said that he would do so.
There was a lovely story about him being in the army in Ireland in his youth and sitting at dinner with his comrades. His egg,when he broke it open,was rank and rotten. John the Mill was hungry, so he reached over to the plate of his oblivious fellow-diner and snatched the man's egg and replaced it with his own. It was a terribly sneaky thing to do but he was duly punished for it: he broke open the second egg and it was even more rotten than the first one. He could not do a thing except eat it.
During those lengthy talking sessions, with the remains of the fly presumably long digested in our systems, each night we could have listened for much longer but the man's voice would be close to giving up, morning fast approaching, and understandably there were windmills to deal with.
We enjoyed his visits more than anything else during the short stay. I sent Christmas cards after that and Spouse spoke to him once or twice from California: we were on the verge of moving out of the state and our lives were a little confused so the fact that we maintained contact in a tumultuous time brings us gladness.
He passed away unexpectedly last year and Spouse and I were deeply shocked.
We were told by the family who own the trailer that in the caravan there sits a newspaper cutting with our wedding photo on it; John the Mill had wanted to borrow it the very next time he stepped into the family's caravan. He did not get the chance but I am glad the evenings meant as much to him as they did us, that he might have wanted to have a photo of two people who, unbeknown to himself, had eaten Szechuan Fly for dinner before they settled in to hear his stories.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:39 AM
Monday, February 25, 2008
"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience."
-George Bernard Shaw
It has often been said that the past is the greatest guide to the future. With history as a tool we ought to make the most of human existence and utilise our capacity for decent, intelligent thought.
There are clues, hints, lessons all around us, delivered from the past to our proverbial table.
But we are slow to learn. Even when the books are before us and the exact page opened, the precise passage underlined for our examination- still, we are reluctant to believe in the power of history to teach us and to gently steer us in the right direction.
A few days ago I came across a rather odd tale: a man in Boston received a postcard in his mailbox from Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. One might think nothing much of that but the postcard was written and posted in the Summer of 1929. Almost eighty years later it reached the doorstep of a stranger, its intended recipient of course vanished long ago. Nobody on earth knows where the postcard reposed during its singular interval. The writer could never have foreseen the longevity of the card; had he or she guessed, they might well have inscribed more than the lone phrase, 'Greetings-' perhaps a note or two about the beauty of the park and of the world and what was found there. In the case of the long-lost postcard, however, 'Greetings' will have to suffice. It is, when all is said and done, better than no word at all.
I have written notes to myself, post-dated them and tucked them away in a dark corner. Upon discovering the same years later I never fail to be shocked by what I wrote, by what I expected of myself or my future. Thoughts from the past, however distant, are perpetually a curiosity to me. My letters always contained some sort of wisdom that I urged my older self to follow.
It need not, however, be as obvious as all that.
History in itself should be our key.
The grim fact that the soul who wrote the brief comment on a postcard on a June day in a magnificent park almost a century ago- the solid fact of their passing ought to be enough to make us sit up straight and suddenly feel the brevity of our own lives. Feel it, perhaps, enough to listen to the words that preceded us. We can learn from anything that has passed. History is forever attempting to dictate to us something valuable.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:45 AM
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
-Antoine de Saint Exupery
We kept white rabbits when I was young; and we had a dog. The former stayed most of the time in their hutch while the dog, a black haired mix of this and that who passed away just a couple of years ago, was free to roam about the garden as he pleased.
One afternoon, on returning home from a shopping trip, we discovered a horrific scene on the front lawn. One of the rabbits had escaped from its enclosure and was crouched, cowering, in the grass. Our dog was hovering over the quivering form; there were white clouds of fluff scattered about the immediate vicinity and, most incriminating, around the dog's mouth.
The dog was wrenched aside, the rabbit scooped up and brought to safety. We had arrived home just in time to save the creature's life. The dog received a loud and hard telling off.
It was some years later that a bedraggled kitten was discovered on the roadside by our house. As there was blood in its ear we gave up all hope of saving it and the tiny thing was gently placed onto a low, ivy-covered stone wall until it was decided what to do next.
Our dog leaped onto the wall and suddenly began to lick the miserable wretch as it lay prone and still bleeding. He lay down beside the ragged bundle and did not stir for many hours except to nudge the kitten from time to time and to offer it another lap of his tongue.
The kitten was eventually roused from its forbidding slumber. We knew a lady who loved cats and had an unlimited amount of affection, time and space for many of them. While the dog was not looking, the helpless cat was gathered up and taken to the comfort of our neighbour's house where we hoped the strong-willed feline would have a good life after such a thing had seemed inconceivable. I remember that the dog, upon discovering the absence of his beloved friend, howled with anguish and distress. He hunted in a frenzy, scampered all over the area but the kitten was gone, and he was left inconsolable.
We watched and in a heartbeat understood it all. Of course he had taken a shine to the kitten- there was no doubting that fact. On that astonishing afternoon, as we watched a dog bring a cat back from the dead through the power of compassion, this was made clear to us all: he had not been trying to devour our pet rabbit in the garden all those years ago. The dog had not been seeking to hurt the rabbit or play with it. He had been doing his very best to prevent it from moving toward the busy road and he succeeded with his only utility: his mouth. He had been trying to gather up the rabbit much as a mother cat does with her kittens, and carry it, wedged between his jaws, back to the hutch. We had come home and interpreted his action as a violent one. Seeing him perform a miracle opened our eyes, for no dog that cared so much about a half-dead kitten could wish to hurt a rabbit. It was too late, of course, to take back either our hasty assumption or the harsh treatment that had been delivered to him that day in the garden. All of us were filled with a heartbreaking remorse and a tangible guilt for judging upon sight. The dog lived a good life long after he saved the kitten; I do not remember ever shouting at him again.
In the ensuing tangle of loose rabbit fur and struggling dog, we ought to have seen things with a slant: not everything is black and white. It helps to see, to properly see, before judging anything.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:29 AM
Sunday, February 24, 2008
"It is wiser to find out than to suppose."
Once, in Ireland, my Spouse and I checked into a Bed and Breakfast before wandering out in search of dinner. We had found the inn by strolling along the street and keeping an eye out for signs that said 'VACANCY' and hoped that finding a suitably decent restaurant in a small town would be as easy.
We found a delightful little place and I recall that I had some marvellous seafood. Afterward we walked about for a bit and then I began to notice a vague feeling of uneasiness about my person and in my stomach. Spouse was concerned and as the pain grew, hurried us back to our Bed and Breakfast. Spouse quickly pulled from his pocket the key we had been given earlier by the landlady and inserted it into the lock.
It did not work. We were feeling quite foolish for not having checked to ensure that the key worked; it was now late in the evening and our only option was to awaken the poor woman who, judging by the fact that she gave us a key, would not be particularly pleased to be obliged to let us in.
With me in some pain, Spouse could not dawdle and knocked loudly on the door. There was nothing from within, and Spouse tried again.
After a long period of waiting in which my trouble grew increasingly bothersome, the door was opened.
"Hah?" said the fellow. We had woken him up, that much was certain.
"Our key does not work," said Spouse.
The fellow did not shift to the side as we had hoped he would. He barely blinked.
Oh, dear. If only we had managed to awaken a sharper being.
"We booked in here earlier." There seemed nothing much else to say, but the fellow was not enlightened.
"Don't know." He rubbed his eyes.
Spouse was now seriously worried. "Our bags are in there," he said, beginning to imagine that we would not be sleeping there tonight. If we could at least get our belongings, though, we could sort out the matter with greater ease.
"Yes." Spouse's tone turned crisp. This fellow was too much! "We left our bags in there this evening. The lady left us this key. It doesn't work."
The chap, slack-jawed and bleary, looked at each of us as best he could: his eyes could hardly focus.
Now Spouse was angry and decided to follow down the Wife route if the other insisted upon it.
"My wife is sick. We need to get in to this Bed and Breakfast now."
Somebody inside the sleepy one's head opened a fridge and the little light came on.
"Oh," he said. "You probably mean the Bed and Breakfast next door."
He pointed. It seemed that we were at the wrong house. The doors were identical in colour and, of course, in shape.
In our defence, though, I do not comprehend why on earth he found it so difficult to grasp our mistake and save us all a lot of time.
If one runs a shoe store that happens to be next to a bakery, and a customer comes rushing in for a loaf of warm something or other, I should think it most sensible to say, "we sell shoes here. Perhaps you meant to go next door?"
It all sounds so simple, really.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 1:25 PM
Saturday, February 23, 2008
"Let books be your dining table and you shall be full of delights.
Let them be your mattress and you shall sleep restful nights."
-St. Ephrem the Syrian, 303-373
Most adults that love books will have enjoyed them as children. Cherished them and wept at night when it came time to close the page and dim the lights.
With so long a wait until morning, it is no wonder that a good number of book lovers smuggled secret beams of light under the sheets and, once the grownup footfall faded away, resumed the spellbinding moment that had been interrupted.
My mother was one such child and I, on hearing her tale, understood that I am lucky to be here.
One night, when Mater was very young, she was ordered to switch off the light and to put away the book she was reading. She did as she was told but as soon as she was alone fetched a battery-operated torch and snuggled under the covers with her book. The lamplight was soon seen, of course, and the tool immediately taken away from her protesting small self. Mater was crestfallen but industrious, too. The following night she was rather more prepared. A candle and a box of matches would see to it that Mater might read her book. Under the sheets she went, and inside the makeshift tent there smoldered a great candle.
Alas, we can surmise without much ado how it ended. When morning called, an extensive hole in the fine sheet merited my mother an unrestrained admonishing that never left her memory.
Just like Mater, I too will go to great lengths to retain my hold on a book; and indeed, I am lucky to be here to do so.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:16 PM
Friday, February 22, 2008
"When dealing with the insane, the best method is to pretend to be sane."
Recently Spouse and I needed to get some paperwork done. It required a trip to the bank with a copy of each of Spouse's two passports. What Spouse needed was to have a notary read what we brought and then sign and swear that he had seen the documents and could verify that they belonged to this person. That is, in general, the very reason for a public notary.
We entered the small office- we had discovered that our local bank offers the service for free if one has an account there; the matter was otherwise unrelated to the bank- and sat at a desk.
The notary asked Spouse to sign something, and he scribbled words of his own on the pages.
The two passports were side-by-side and open at the appropriate pages; that is to say that Spouse's face beamed brightly up from both documents.
The notary moved about a bit in his chair and then made the most remarkable comment. He said, "so, those aren't your passports, right?"
Spouse and I are ready, these days, for any sort of infantile questions but this was a bit odd, we thought.
"Those are not both your passports?"
"They are both my passports," Spouse said gravely.
The man continued to scribble. He never once asked Spouse for identification so we are still a bit unclear on why he was a necessary tool. One could hardly say he verified anything without checking to see a driver's licence or some such paper. Aside from that, it was a most curious way to have phrased it; instead of asking if the passports belonged to Spouse, which they most obviously did, being that the pictures matched the man sitting in front of him, he asked the question in a negative way as if it were a given fact that they were not Spouse's at all and that would be acceptable to him. What, then, would we be doing with the passports in the notary office of our local bank? It begged too many questions; so we immediately gave up and let him finish his work and do what we came in for, before discussing the issue outside.
We got into the car and I went to put my seatbelt on. We had not exchanged a word so far. I let out a wretched cry; I could not catch my breath. I noted that Spouse was observing my motions with milder concern than I would have hoped.
Eventually Spouse fathomed that my gasps were not ones of anger or frustration at the notary fellow: I had swung my seatbelt around and the metal buckle had clipped my knee. I had bashed the bone, the fleshless bit of bone that makes one quite nearly faint if the lightest thing taps it. It felt as though my knee had split open. I know, too, exactly what that feels like but let me not digress.
"I'm sorry," said my Spouse when I was a natural colour again and had ceased clutching my knee. "I thought you were furious at the notary."
Only then did we both come to realise that we are getting much better at dealing with the people we so often encounter. He scarcely affected us at all. We are numbed, at long joyful last.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:00 AM
Survivor, by Roger McGough
I think about dying.
About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.
keep my mind off things.
In Krakatoa in 1883 the force of the volcano that erupted was so mighty it could be heard by people at about a distance of 2000 miles and is today considered to have produced the loudest sound ever recorded on Earth. The power was at least 13000 times that of the force which devastated Hiroshima in Japan.
If 1883 seems like a distant speck of dust behind us, perhaps some perspective is necessary.
In the same year, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened, as was the University of Texas at Austin. The machine gun was patented; there were postage stamps and bicycles. The passenger train, The Orient Express, took its first run from Paris to Romania. Elmer Maytag, founder of the washing machine manufacturing company, was born.
It is difficult to be horrified at an earth-shattering tragedy that took place so long ago. With a second glance, however, one comes to feel that the inhabitants of Krakatoa and surrounding lands who were so dreadfully affected by the eruption of the volcano lived in a world surprisingly similar to our own.
It is always this way. People are people, of course, whether they left records behind or not; whether they enjoyed the same means of entertainment; whether we have any single connection to them other than sharing the same planet, albeit vast time spans apart.
I admit truthfully that I did this small study as a lesson to myself. I had not thought of the world in 1883 as being so close to ours; it turns out that civilisation was but a heartbeat away from modern household appliances and contemporary societal laws.
As one trawls further back in time, though, it becomes more of a struggle to find a connection that inspires awe or sadness. Perspective, and some study are all that is essential.
If, in the course of our learning we should happen to become particularly adept at understanding the hearts and minds of people we previously felt nothing for; if we should come to know that our own doorstep is not the ultimate location for pivotal worldly events, then we might, perhaps, venture to tidy up our present century and attempt to provoke ourselves into some much absent brotherly spirit.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:58 AM
"You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
One afternoon when I was six years old I went visiting locally with my mother. At the end of the visit I was presented, most bizarrely, with a pair of cats. My mother had not agreed to it; I knew better than to request any new pets. Nevertheless they were boxed up with dizzying speed and by the time we got our balance back we were in the car on the way home with two unexpected additions to the family.
My mother grumbled. I was in shock. As we rolled home I could feel the animals moving around a bit inside the box. The journey to our house took just a few minutes but by the time we arrived I had grown accustomed to the fact that for the first time, I was the proud owner of two pets. I would be responsible and careful and nobody, I assured my mother, would have to worry about them because I would take good care of the little creatures.
Frankly, I was astonished that my mother was not more reticent about the matter. She instead seemed quite accepting, after a long silence. I had my cats, though, and I was as merry as a lark. When it came time to open the box I could barely work my small fingers around the cardboard. Kneeling on the grass in the garden I prepared to acquaint myself with my new friends.
I heard the most startling sound, very much like a hiss, and I saw a sudden flash of grey. The murky wisp streamed from the box like a cloud of smoke, streaked across the field, slid up and over the fence, and vanished.
I think that it might have been a cat but the fact could never be positively verified because that was the first and last time any of us saw the shadowy blur.
Aghast, I stared down into the box at the remaining feline. No more than a few weeks old, mewling pitifully, the tiny thing stared up at me with surprise and, thankfully, some calm docility. She nestled into my hand and I just knew that we would be companions for life.
Come bedtime, I prepared to carry her indoors with me. My mother refused to let her into the house. I was thunderstruck. The kitten was so tiny, so helpless- there was certainly no way that she could survive a night outdoors in an unfamiliar place. I pleaded but my mother, genuinely thinking that it was the right thing to do, ensured that I slept indoors while the cat did not.
The kitten had, naturally, disappeared by the time that the first bars of sunlight blushed across the sky. I was anguished and could only hope that some kindly neighbours had found her and taken her in.
The truth is that we were not really prepared for new pets. It is most important to be ready.
Spouse and I would love more than anything to have a dog. We know, already, what our future dog looks like.
He is yellow. He possesses a most gentle head, wise eyes that promise protection, and enormous paws. He loves everybody with unbridled enthusiasm but will not hesitate to sniff out trouble and send people running if the situation should require it.
He exists only in our hearts because we do not have a stable enough life to keep a dog and to guarantee that it would be permanent. We simply could not bear to find that we do, after all, want to live in another country or that we must by necessity relocate to a home that allows no pets, and discover that we must find another home for ours. We are being responsible by denying ourselves a most wonderful pleasure, in order to not hurt a living creature.
Our kindest action for the moment is to have no animal at all. It makes us awfully lonely at times but it is the only decent thing to do.
I believe that under these circumstances it requires just as much love and understanding to keep an animal as it does to be without one.
One day, I know, Spouse and I will declare that we have found our nesting place and root ourselves in a quiet green corner of the world with that imagined dog suddenly a wonderful reality.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:25 AM
Thursday, February 21, 2008
"Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."
Presented here are guidelines for how one can most easily cast off that idle, silly nature of youth.
Spend Winter complaining bitterly when it snows; let the slush melt away without your having flung a single snowball; do not, under any circumstance, seek out the tracks of squirrels or similarly small creatures.
Grumble about the warm, wet sweep of Spring; declare that the season is neither here nor there; suggest that the year is already passing by too quickly and it is too late to resolve anything or to begin a routine; avoid any Spring cleaning of the house and mind.
Mutter to oneself and to one's closest audience about the nuisance and cost of having to run the Air Conditioner in Summer; notice astutely that there are too many tourists; rant vociferously and lengthily about one's deep loathing for mosquitoes; do not sit under any shady trees.
Reflect sagely in Autumn on how the year has flown by like a bird that did not pause for rest; mumble about the inevitable death and tumble of leaves; drag one's rain jacket from the cupboard with a loud, protracted sigh.
Weep because there is nothing to do and because life is utterly, hopelessly boring.
Do not look for animal tracks. They might lead somewhere.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:19 AM
"Look at all those fancy clothes,
But these could keep us warm just like those.
And what about your soul? Is it cold?
Is it straight from the mold, and ready to be sold?"
-From the song 'Gone' by Jack Johnson
On Friday morning I placed a fresh pear in my Spouse's lunch bag. Nestled in with the meatloaf and cheese, homemade bread and freshly baked marmalade cake, the pear looked mighty fine.
Spouse was extremely busy all that day at work. In the evening as I emptied the lunch bag I found the pear again. I shook the crumbs off, polished it up a little and set it aside.
On Monday morning I put the pear back into my Spouse's lunch bag. He brought it home that evening, as he did on Tuesday. When I saw the forgotten fruit on Wednesday night I had to stop and think.
If I had not given my Spouse a pear for lunch every day for the last week the loss would have been sorely felt.
Spouse would, no doubt, have complained of hunger and of missing the usual midmorning snack. The mere presence of the food kept the pangs at bay. With the pear close to hand Spouse could feel comfort in knowing that it was readily available at any given moment. Lacking the time, however, Spouse simply had no opportunity to indulge in the ripening food. That, then, is where my interest piqued: for all intents and purposes I was really supplying my Spouse with a virtual pear- a proverbial snack. I wonder how far one can go with a psychological crutch, so to speak.
The power of imagination is fierce.
I know from experiencing that carrying money in one's wallet, even that which is not available to be spent, makes a person feel like royalty for a little while.
Hearing one's pockets jingle pleasantly with loose change is strengthening even when that money is destined to ease a debt.
We buy shiny new books and are hesitant to crack them open and turn them into used ones; we save our best shoes, dresses, sweaters for a rainy day. Possessing something uneaten, unspent, unworn or unread gives a rather warm impression of wealth and resourcefulness. We do not dig out the very last spoonful of Horlick's from the jar precisely for the same reason: we wish to tell ourselves that we yet have some.
I shall admit it: that particular illusion is often favourable to our health and wellbeing. I exhort, I know, a good deal about the burden of possessions and the foolishness of not utilising what one has. People have not always been weighed down with material items; our hearts and minds do not know what to do with all that we have, all that is causing our attention span to dwindle. So today, in the midst of too many purposeless objects, we are inwardly overwhelmed. We are not as happy or as comfortable with a house full of expensive toys as we might have expected to be, or as satisfied as the bright and buoyant advertisements promised us we would be.
I am greatly aware of my own aversion to such a lifestyle and of the fact that I comment often on the futility of material things. However, with a pear in hand it came to my mind that if a man can live happily for a week on the faint possibility of one fruit then perhaps all is not eternally lost.
First, we keep our best things safe and use only their presence to inspire us. Soon we may evolve to a point where we no longer need the physical object to support our contentment. Of course, it must be understood that I refer to possessions and not to food. We can do without much but supplies for a staple diet ought to take precedence.
I, with my enormous appetite and hearty love of all things edible, could speak of no less.
People just might be able to return to a way of life that commends the ability to linger on the memory of a taste or a sight, and on perception that overcomes need for physical possession. All else can fall asunder but our minds are potent, even on the most rainy of days.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:36 AM
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
"Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush."
On glancing out of my window this morning I saw a Spring bird. At first sight, it was a symbol of better weather, or hope of it; a sign of a thaw in the air; more likely it was evidence of our impatience to be out and about and make-believe that it is already Summer. We so badly want the comfort of the sun that we can almost feel the warmth on our faces.
The Spring bird that I saw was my neighbour.
It was 6 AM and she was attending to something beside her car. I strained hard to see if she was actually wearing anything at all for it looked like she was experiencing a day at the beach in July. A pair of shorts, a microscopic vest: these covered the young woman to some extent; that is to say, almost not at all. I was horrified. I retreated discreetly from the window feeling a swift and palpable chill.
Patience, patience. Spring will come, in time, as will Summer and on it shall go. There is no sense in risking pneumonia for the foolish belief that life ought always to be full of sunshine.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
"People who cannot recognize a palpable absurdity are very much in the way of civilization."
There is nothing, to my mind, quite like the cosy feel and anticipatory thrill of a train journey. On at least two separate occasions in the last couple of years I have had reason to travel with my mother on a train. Such encounters are never dull.
Mater had a packet of chocolate raisins in her handbag and dived in every now and then to eat one. I have a different sort of palate and cannot abide by such things as fruit dipped in sugar so I had none of her offerings. To Mater's dismay she saw that the package had torn open and the raisins were scattered at the bottom of her bag. Undeterred she thrust her hand in, pulled her fist out and threw a large number into her mouth.
I made the sort of face that indicated further distaste. Mater smiled and chewed.
Then I looked more closely. Unbeknown to her there was a twenty cent coin protruding from her lips.
"You have money in your mouth," said I wryly.
She felt it then, and pulled the thing out immediately. We chuckled all the way home and the tears took hours to dry up.
While on an excursion, Mater, Spouse and I pulled into our destination city. We gathered our bags together and realised that we needed the restroom and, too, that the majority of the passengers would be in the same situation once they disembarked. We decided to hurry off the train and through that station. I already knew that those particular restrooms had a process whereby each single person inserted a coin in order to get past the one-way gate and into the facility. The gate is known as the turnstile; all one needs is the loose change.
Mater had a thought as we ran.
"Is this the station," she gushed breathlessly, "where you need to bring your own turnstile?"
I envision still a responsible, convenient and self-sufficient world where we each carry our own turnstile. The perfect world, however, would be blandness itself without such delightful verbal blunders.
As an aside, I learned just recently that turnstiles are on occasion referred to as 'baffle gates.' One has to appreciate the common sense in that.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:31 AM
Monday, February 18, 2008
Ships, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Ships that pass in the night
and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown
and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life
we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice;
then darkness again and a silence.
Whatever part of the world one resides in, one ought to be kind to out-of-towners and foreigners. When my Spouse landed in America ten years ago he had 5000 dollars in his pocket. He was hungry, both professionally and literally. He could not drive and so could not get to a single place that sold food. Languishing in the isolated motel in early evening with nothing to eat except popcorn and with hundreds of channels available on the television it all seemed like a cruel trick of fate. My Spouse had arrived from Japan where punctuality is central to civilisation and efficiency. He remembers a newspaper in Japan once boldly announcing that a bullet train had been a few minutes late. It had made national headlines. Spouse had spent enough time among the people of Japan to have become equally acquainted with the necessity of accurate timekeeping.
Breakfast, Spouse had been told, would be available at 6:30 AM. At 6:30 AM, having been awake for hours with hunger pains, Spouse went to the restaurant to finally eat. The restaurant was closed. Spouse had, unfortunately, arrived in the United States on the very evening that Daylight Savings Time began and it was in fact 5:30 AM. Bitterly hungry, Spouse waited for another hour.
"It was a new 6:30," Spouse told me.
That same morning Spouse received his first telephone call in the United States. He picked up the receiver and said, startled, "hello?"
"I love you," chimed a lady's voice in sing-song rhythm.
"I'm sorry, you have a wrong number," said my ever-polite Spouse without missing a beat. When one knows nobody at all within a distance of thousands of miles, there can be no hesitation in deciding the validity of messages.
There was a stunned silence and then the embarrassed woman disconnected rapidly.
A colleague was scheduled to pick up my Spouse and take him to work on the first morning. The fellow had been told to be there at 8 AM. At two minutes past eight Spouse made a telephone call to enquire about whether his driver, who he of course did not know at all, was really picking him up.
"Are you coming over?" he asked as politely as was possible.
After work, Spouse needed, of course. to find some dinner. Spouse then attempted to cross the road in order to do so. The road was extremely busy. After a period of about ten minutes Spouse understood sadly that the road was quite possibly going to continue to be busy and he would not be able to get to the other side. It is a fine thing that he realised just in time, for he had been examining the perilous freeway which is illegal to cross and is so for very good reason: chances were slim that a person would survive traversing a road where the vehicles were passing by so quickly as to be a blur.
Spouse had no dinner that night or all that week. As a result he took some driving lessons; prior to this he had spent a scant few hours inside a car in his entire life. Spouse had his driver's licence before the end of the following week through sheer lack of food and through utter desperation.
My Spouse dislikes popcorn and television; his metabolism requires him to partake of food every couple of hours. I cannot now envision a more lonely picture: that of my Spouse sitting alone in a thrilling country he cannot explore, while ravenous with hunger and, worst of all ironies, with money burning a hole in his pocket. I find the scene indescribably poignant and heartbreaking.
During his first week in America Spouse had thousands of dollars to spend and a cheery telephone message of love. Neither of them meant a thing given the circumstances.
So, spare a thought for the newly arrived people in a foreign and unfamiliar land, to the immigrants lost and alone in our country: they need our help, our friendliness and our consideration.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:45 PM
"I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun."
-Thomas A. Edison
My Spouse was recently at an employment convention. While dining with some other recruiters he overheard a discussion about one particular would-be employee who had stopped at one of the many booths to enquire about what was on offer.
"So he came to my desk," the man near Spouse was saying, "asked about the opportunities and then handed me his resume. As he was walking away he stopped and turned and asked casually where the company was located."
According to the fellow the answer had been 'Connecticut.' At that response the man came back, swiped the sheet of paper out of the recruiter's hand and said, "no. That's too far."
I could not begin to imagine the expression on the astonished recruiter's face when the resume was so unprofessionally recalled.
One morning last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was strolling about the street and waiting for my favourite thrift store to open its doors.
I was approached by a young man weighed down with a stack of magazines. "Would you like one?" he said as he pushed one into my hand. I asserted, rather redundantly, that I would.
"That'll be a dollar," he said without batting an eyelid.
"What? I don't have a dollar," I said indignantly. I am sure that I had a dollar but I was impatiently waiting for a treasure trove to open so that I might find a way to happily spend it. I had not a dollar to spend on some idle paper I knew nothing about. I had received it because he made me do so and because I thought it only polite to take the free item he was offering.
"Maybe next time, then," he said sharply, before grasping the magazine and removing it quickly from my fingers.
I did not know whether to laugh or simply be startled.
"Next time," he had said. After that maneuver, somehow, I sincerely doubt it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:15 AM
Sunday, February 17, 2008
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods...
But there is no road through the woods.
-From the poem 'The Way Through the Woods' by Rudyard Kipling
I have been thinking a good deal lately about our much-loved California town. With the glum days of late Winter still shrouding our present place I find myself turning to the brighter memories for solace and cheer. They do not always come wrapped in blue skies and sunshine; being a person with a predilection toward Winter it is true that innumerable reminiscences are from Winters past- but of a seemingly more optimistic inclination despite the grey and the gloom.
We lived on that most perfect of streets: lined by towering trees; amiable; gently sloped and within a short pace of the main town without suffering from any hustle and bustle by our front door.
I once was locked out of our house accidentally: Spouse had left for the airport and I had stepped outside to say goodbye. We, as it happened, had separate doors and one key for each: I had possession of the front which was closer to the main street and to my college, and Spouse had the back where our car was parked. I exited behind Spouse through the back door to see him drive away. I turned and could not get in again without a key which I of course had never held for the back door; I went to the front and could not get in there either- my key would work but I had latched the screen door from the inside and could not dismantle the chain in order to push my way inside.
I panicked for a brief moment and then saw an elderly gentleman tending his lawn across the street. I scrambled enough bravery together to walk over and ask him to assist me in breaking into my own home. He did so with a garden implement and without hesitation. He let me know that I was not the only one to request
such- stranded neighbours were always coming to him and he was eternally aiding them. I had not spoken to him before and did not do so again but I knew we could rely on our neighbours should it be necessary at any time.
Beside that neighbour there lived a family with two children. They never spoke to us, those small sisters. They would often come bounding out of their house on a clear afternoon and dance, jump about, scream and do generally anything to catch the attention of Spouse and I. They waved often, even when passing by in a car but said not one word in all the time we lived there.
The house next to theirs yet again was the most glaring when it came to Christmas lights every year and over the three Winters we spent on that street the lights grew progressively more aggressive. We have passed three more Winters without seeing that house lit up like Las Vegas and I wonder how it was this season. I wonder if the children still wave to strangers and if that kindly
fellow has been rescuing people all the while.
It is curious, always, to think of life coasting along regardless of absence; of children growing up and, in general, of men and trees growing older. We self-indulgently tend to feel as though Time ought to suspend itself while we cross continents, meet new people and while we ourselves change with the passing days. I see no harm- it holds memories firmly in place and encapsulates a sense of home that cannot be tarnished by the years.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:53 AM
Saturday, February 16, 2008
The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.
-Teilhard De Chardin
My cousin shared with me recently of a moment with his mother many years ago. He had just been on a visit to Dublin Zoo and had brought to his mother a small black and white photograph of two young penguins.
Thinking that he would have a little joke with his mother, whose sight was not very good, he offered the picture and asked, "do you recognise anyone there?" She was at that time in her life very proud to not wear any glasses. She looked carefully at the paper before her and a moment later declared that she did.
"Of course I do. I'd know that nose anywhere. That's John!" said she, referring to a friend of theirs with a rather prominent nose. How funny the human eye is- she genuinely saw a familiar face in the shape of the bird. My cousin was not long in putting her straight about the matter.
They laughed about it for years afterward and never told their friend of his being confused with a baby penguin.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:14 PM
Friday, February 15, 2008
"There is more to life than simply increasing its speed."
When my mother stands in her back yard she keeps an eye out for a certain line of three stars that burns brightly in the night sky. She does this because, after visiting Spouse and I several times, she determined that we too had those stars in our sky and we might, if our schedules were aligned properly, all partake of the same trio although we are on two continents.
My mother is entertaining ideas of a faster Internet service; should she indulge and should the speedy facility come within a reasonable radius of her home- which, so far, it has not though her nearest neighbours are happily ensconced- her life would change drastically. I urge her to reconsider before embarking upon such a change.
Currently her connection is so very slow that when she attempts to open a page, look at a picture or send an iota of anything, she must wait. That waiting invariably allows her to take a cigarette outdoors; to make a cup of tea; to consume her dinner; to watch an entire television show; to speak with me on the telephone; to do a myriad of other things. She might, depending on the quality of the speed on a particular night, be enabled to do one or more of these activities. Should it happen that she comes by a super-fast connection, there would suddenly be no time at all for any diversion. An evening might transpire like this:
"I'm going to have a cup of- but wait, the page is ready."
"I'll call my daughter- oh my, that was quick."
"I need a cigarette- oh my, the photograph has already appeared."
Her favourite television show, the tobacco industry and myself would all fail miserably without her slow Internet connection. Most importantly, she would never set foot in the back yard to gaze at that band of twinkling stars that makes her think of me; and the million and one things that she ordinarily gets done under the guise of waiting for the Internet would rarely happen.
The faster way is not always the beneficial way. As long as we use them efficiently, we need spaces in our life, little voids that give us time to get the minutest things accomplished.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:32 AM
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Yesterday in the dismal afternoon I shuffled to the dumpster and then slushed my way to the mailbox. I had not bothered to dress much for the occasion and wandered down there in my pyjamas and a Winter jacket. But oh, what a jacket. A metallic silver-grey, it is flawless in preserving my skin from the rain. It is lined with what feels like a combination of velvet and fur, a silken sheen that has so far not faded with age. It fits like the most delightful glove. In short, it keeps me warm and keeps me dry.
Ostensibly it might well be an innocuous garment. Indeed, one would not guess that it was the source of much struggle for me and its very weight even today is a reminder of such.
I bought it about seven years ago for one hundred pounds. It was then and remains today the single most expensive piece of clothing that I have owned in my life. I vaguely remember purchasing the jacket: that is not to say I did the thing on a whim. I am sure that my mother was next to me and that I was conscientious. After all, it was my own hard-earned money I passed to the sales assistant- so I owned it outright. Any soul could ask my mother- show me bookstores, said I many a time, but no store which sells either footwear or clothing. I was not a frequent purchaser of garments and what I did buy was with careful consideration, necessity and much ado.
None of that- what I best remember is stepping out of the store and, shaking off my old coat, slipping the new one over my shoulders once again. Then, the horror. I had spent one hundred pounds on a jacket. A perfectly decent and ordinary coat, if I had needed one- which I did not- could be had at that time in that city for a fraction of the price. There I was, wearing the best jacket in the world and standing on a street ready to enjoy the rest of my afternoon. There were people sitting on the street at nearly every corner. They had cardboard signs that pleaded, and ragged, woolen hats to gather the loose change of the most generous pedestrians. It was very cold. I was stricken with a sense of dread that I had committed a terrible societal error and contributed to the ills I noted every day. Those days, it seemed as though I regularly observed far more destitution than I had ever done. I was heavily aware of the disparity in the world both before and after I bought the jacket.
I was at once saddened and ashamed to have indulged in such a way. I took the jacket home and pondered about it for days. I told my mother that I wanted to give it away, perhaps to a cold homeless person. Mater would not allow that and urged me strongly to wear the beautiful item. It was months before I could come to terms with what I had spent my money on. It would be a long time before the jacket seemed to weigh less. I finally drew up a set of rules for the jacket which must be adhered to if the jacket could remain in my possession:
wear it; enjoy the wearing; be happy in it; be an especially nice person while cloaked in it; wear it until it falls apart; ensure that it should become the wisest choice and not the most selfish.
I skated across the iced parking lot on my excursion last afternoon and made sure to appreciate the scattering squirrels, the fresh, brisk air and the hint of Spring.
I report that even today I cannot wear the jacket without due consideration; happily, perhaps that is the point.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:20 AM
Thursday, February 14, 2008
"Animals are such agreeable friends- they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms."
Not Lost (For Smaug)
But they are not lost,
the animals that we loved
they have passed on
out of hands that stroked
yet they are more now
than they were:
more than gentle eyes,
than feathers, scales or fur,
than thumping tail,
than noble heart;
they are fond memory
ever warm, indelible
with no heed of time.
Our small friends trusted us
-without need of proof,
to recall their affection.
So we dwell on what we cared for
-though it be a thorn that tears-
and we fondly hold dear
each companionable scene.
We part with what we see,
cope quietly with our loss
but they are not lost,
the animals that we loved.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:51 PM
"Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson."
My Spouse relishes the beauty of English as much as I; there are so many puns, idioms and labyrinthine twists and turns in the rules that there always seems something fresh to be deduced from the language. It is, I say, a veritable Pandora's box.
Frequently my Spouse drops names into discussion, familiar names that we have all met with since we learned to grasp speech:
"Every Tom, Dick and Harry..."
"For the love of Mike..."
"That would be like robbing Peter to pay Paul..."
"Bob's your Uncle..."
There again, Spouse casually says "ching, ching..." when referring to the loss of money and funds simply dropping away from us.
The trouble with idioms is that one tends to have a loose tongue when they become a part of one's vocabulary. With the exception of one or two, my Spouse works in close proximity with people possessed of all of the above names, including the very one that sounds like loose change.
It was a slow realisation but Spouse must absolutely ensure discretion from now on. Should he halt, mortified, in the middle of a sentence about Tom, Dick and Harry, he might yet turn and put his foot in it once again with another fellow and appear to accuse him of robbing another's money or seem to suggest genealogical knowledge of another colleague's background. One wonders if one ought to ever say anything at all. English is delightful but it is paved with treacherous stones that one can easily stumble over before one can say 'Jack Robinson.'
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:21 AM
Six years ago Spouse and I lived for a brief period in a small apartment in California. It was at this time of year that we moved in and I was not long in the country. At about five thirty one evening I stood gazing out the window of our third-floor living room. I was waiting for my Spouse to return from work. I watched as a car swiftly rolled into its alloted place directly under our window. Oddly, nobody exited, and, curious, I continued to peek from my vantage point. There was a man inside and he was scribbling furiously on some sort of card. His hand was moving so rapidly that it was a faint blur. Finally he put the card into a red envelope which he sealed. He climbed out of the car and went into his home.
A moment later another car pulled up and slid into the next parking space. Again, nobody came out quickly. I saw, once more, a hand moving faster than a bird, working on some sort of writing. The man finally left his car and went into his home.
Not two minutes after that, a third car returned home. This time the man was not performing penmanship but nevertheless he staggered out of his vehicle verily weighted down with balloons, a cake, and what appeared to be chocolates in a decorative, ribboned box. He, too, went into his home.
I could not understand what I had seen.
Some short while later my Spouse returned. He was, of course, empty handed. I queried what on earth the reason might have been for the display. We eventually discerned that it was Saint Valentine's Day and those men were all hurrying to bring gifts to their wives. We had not remembered the event. I had not found the sight of two hastily written cards and a man with an entire store's worth of gifts in the least bit romantic; the fury with which the cards were written put me in mind of fearful fellows who were merely doing their level best to survive the evening without putting a foot wrong. I made my Spouse promise there and then never to return home with armfuls of anything remotely linked to Valentine's Day. He never has and I am thankful.
Rather than dismiss all notions that I do not care for, I shall go a step further and actually clarify, for the occasion, what I do consider to be romantic. One will find many a traditional gesture missing from my delivery. Certain elements require more explanation than others and more clarification.
To begin, I expect that it is proper to define what I mean by romantic. I propose the word to stand for anything that makes one feel humble in the world but at the same so much a vital part of the clockwork of life. That one feels able to accomplish anything; that one can find beauty in the most unexpected things, be it a pebble or a rose or the stretching sweep of the sky. Any one thing which can capture the profundity of being alive and wanting to know things and of wanting to see, ought to be considered romantic.
A striking scene in a novel: Touie, the wife of Arthur Conan Doyle. In the novel 'Arthur and George' which I have paid homage to at another time, Touie was ready within a few minutes to prepare to join her husband in a new life. She was a character with no recriminations and in that scene she had just one question: "when do we leave?" followed by a gentle statement, "then I must be quick" before she put away her needlework and prepared to pack. As regards adventure, capacity for change and compromise, she was the ideal companion.
An almost wordless scene in a film: 'The Thin Man', from 1934. William Powell and Myrna Loy were incredible in this film. They played Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife detective team. The strong willed Nora Charles could save her husband's life in one scene and resume her knitting in the next. That is classy, that is adaptable and that is devotion. In my favourite scene from the film Nick is in the study comforting a young lady he has known since her childhood; she wishes him to solve a mystery involving her father and is devastated at the turn of events. The kindly fellow wraps her in his arms and offers her some solace. His wife, oblivious to the arrival of the visitor, strides into the room with a drink in hand for herself. She stops short. The younger lady, her back to Nora Charles, is not aware of another party in the room. She is crying too loudly to notice anything.
Suddenly, then, the husband and wife are looking at each other, he holding another woman. He soon recovers. He asks his wife through facial expressions, "what are you looking at?" and makes a gesture at his wife, who promptly makes a face in return. She sticks her tongue out; he does some eye rolling. Nora then gracefully makes her presence known and the young lady apologises for crying so much and for being a nuisance. Nora, without missing a beat, passes her drink to the person who needs it most and tells her not to worry, that everything will work out fine.
I am partial to that scene; it would not work, I believe, in a modern film.
Today, Nora would in all likelihood have thrown the drink in her husband's face, slapped the crying lady and marched out to pack a suitcase.
I have a profound respect for the scene in which the couple merely looked humorously at one another before taking gentle care of their guest.
Mathematics as an elegant whole is unimaginably romantic. There follows a puzzle I enjoyed in a book by Martin Gardner:
The Fork in the Road: A logician found himself on an island inhabited by two tribes. One always tells the truth and the other group always lie. The traveller is suddenly at a fork in the road and he is unsure which path to take, right or left. He must ask somebody but he has no way of knowing the truth-tellers from the liars. There is but one question that he can ask in order to get the correct answer. What is the question?
Ask one of them "if I ask the other, what will they say?" The opposite of the answer given is the true one regardless of which tribe is asked. Is that not magic?
Remaining on the mathematical theme, the next passage is from 'Mister God, This is Anna,' by Fynn. Anna is a tiny child who loves the beauty of mathematics and wonders about everything on the earth. She attends school and clashes with her teacher who is trying to teach the children to count.
"You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?"
"None," said Anna. "I ain't got none in this hand and I ain't got none in this hand, so I ain't got none, and it's wrong to say I have if I ain't."
Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again. "I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have."
Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, "fourteen." "Oh no, dear, " said brave Miss Haynes, "you've got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen."
"I know that," said Anna, "but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I've got fourteen."
The path of mathematics seems endless and as long as we pursue answers the pace of mysterious life will not slow. Numbers continually astonish and vex us; they are magical.
Romantic, certainly, are the poems wherein the writer offers everything he has, and more. Thoughts, dreams, soul are being offered amid abject poverty and hardship. The poet entreats that the very sky would belong to his beloved were it in his power to offer it:
The Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Love of one's country and of the earth is generous, humbling and decent. Learning how to kindly tend the planet is the most suitable education for learning how to take care of one another.
"You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves."
So said Chief Seattle when settlers sought to purchase the land he and his forefathers had lived upon.
There is romance in loving something, anything, so much and for so long that it literally falls apart.
This passage is from 'The Velveteen Rabbit', by Margery Williams. It is set in a children's nursery and the conversation is taking place among the toys.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
Romantic, too, is caring for one's new home as much as the old one left behind; wishing to be in two places at once; the ability to put down a new set of roots.
'The Seven States of California' and 'Gone the Rainbow, Gone the Dove' depict my two homelands with such delicacy and poignancy that, merely by opening each book, I am already home. Both of these authors love the respective places they write about and it is readily apparent.
I ought to include here the romance of hearty discussion in which there is no right and wrong- only debate at once polite and passionate which seeks to listen and learn as well as to teach. We each have something to offer and the wisdom it requires to understand this concept is beautiful indeed.
Rocks, stones, leaves, soil: how romantic it is to identify beauty in something that does not offer an obvious return! A courteous appreciation that in its turn benefits the giver.
Romantic ideals and love have, it seems, become tragically mingled. Contrary to popular belief, each can in fact exist peacefully without the other. Expectation kills romance. Look, and see; take a walk and show somebody, any person, a flower while it grows instead of paying for a dozen to be delivered to a doorstep on a very familiar and expected day when weary resignation might lurk without showing its face.
Perhaps this offers a helping hand toward understanding why Spouse and I are outside the Valentine's Day Circle and why we intend to remain so.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:24 AM