Friday, March 28, 2008
"Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known."
Our adventures will bring us to Tennessee tomorrow. It would be easy, I imagine, to carry a laptop and further my writing during the visit with my relative.
My Spouse suggested as much and I understood the very reasons.
That said, I expect to glean many valuable stories in the next while, and for those it is essential that instead, I simply stop and listen.
Disconnection of electrical appliances will never equate with disconnection of the mind.
I will return, and take up my pen once again. Until then, I remain temporarily and electronically unplugged.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:21 PM
"March is the month of expectation,
The things we do not know..."
They do say that March runs in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
As if we needed proof, another white blanket fell overnight, an oddity in the throes of Springtime.
Snow is everywhere, white like the pristine fleece of that new lamb, appearing astonished and out of place among the emerging greenery.
We will shortly wave our farewells to March 2008: for all it was worth, we shall not have this time again.
And so it goes, always.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:06 PM
Ah, March! we know thou art
Kind-hearted, spite of ugly looks and threats,
And, out of sight, art nursing April's violets!
-Helen Hunt Jackson
March 25, 2008:
As I write, some fellows outside my window are gathering up Winter's remnants- leaves, sticks, traces of snow- and carting them out of my life. They are raking and sweeping and and scraping and planting and preparing the apartment complex for the new season with hope that the darkest days are over.
For the next few days, at the close of this kind-hearted month, my Spouse and I are leaping into the void and taking a short break.
We are not the sort to promote self-deservedness or announce that we ought to "treat" ourselves with our very own money. That said, we need rest, and time to gather our thoughts.
We have spoken to each other much about going to see my relative. Life is short, too short and for the last months we have either been ill separately or together, or come into contact with people who made us miserable against our very best efforts.
We are casting aside all our inner troubles and venturing to take the trip we promised ourselves many a time. It is primarily a recuperating holiday. My relative is careful, quiet and wise and his house beats with a heart that reflects such. We may emerge from the cocoon of this meditative visit ready to make a significant move in our lives or, then again, we might simply reassess how we view our present position.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:05 PM
"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."
While working on the checkout one evening last week my mother was handed a piece of wedding cake by one of her supervisors.
It was a practice cake only; the colleague has been assigned to make one for her daughter's wedding. Not particularly liking how the cake turned out, she thus offered a slice of the mock cake to my mother.
Of course Mater was working and unable to so much as nibble at it but she put it to the side of her work area and carried on with her work.
A short time later she was in the midst of serving a customer; they were at the stage where his debit card had just been scanned. It is customary to ask shoppers who use debit cards if they would like to extract cash for their convenience.
My mother all of a sudden noticed that the cake had vanished.
She immediately knew what had happened to the piece: somebody had wandered past all the checkouts with a basket collecting all the items that customers had either changed their minds about or which had turned out at the last minute to be broken. One person is always designated to sweep through the checkouts and take back any remainders. A piece of cake would therefore be deemed part of the furniture, so to speak, and assumed to be leftover from a customer's basket.
Mater was not too concerned, so long as she spoke soon to the colleague in question so that the cake might be retrieved.
She turned, distracted, to the waiting man and said, "would you like some Christmas cake?" instead of saying, "would you like cash back today?"
He was startled, she was mortified.
To be offered Christmas cake instead of wedding cake which in itself was a substitute for getting cash in hand: I am certain that the chap was as dazzled as my mother.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:43 AM
Thursday, March 27, 2008
"The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked."
Spouse had a dream, another curious and, I expect, note-worthy dream.
We were in an Indian restaurant at Buffet Time- quite like last Saturday afternoon, as a matter of fact. We partook of an enormous feast, relished every second of it and emerged feeling rather like thundering happy elephants. That was quite real, and I can yet taste the mutton curry on my lips. I will never be used to restaurants to the extent that they are no longer a treat.
We were together, anyhow, in the nocturnal vision of my Spouse, eating our buffet lunch when suddenly he noticed that all the dream-patrons had finished eating and departed; we were the only customers left. Apparently we had eaten so much food and had sat for so long that the restaurant was about to close- and still we stayed.
It was awfully kind of the dream-waiters to let us remain for so long, given that they presumably wished to go home, but it is one of my very worst nightmares to enter a buffet or bookstore and be informed that there is not enough time to savour what I find. Rifling through bookshelves while the proprietor taps his foot; attempting to have one last plate of food while the waiters drum their fingers on the table: ghastly.
I should say that it is our nightmare; Spouse experienced it and felt terribly sad afterward, but I felt it too.
In life, and even in dreams, there is never quite enough time to have it all.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:47 AM
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."
My Spouse has bought a radio; it was delivered to our hands last week. Too many modern gadgets possess a radio ability of some sort, but we personally wanted the item to function only as a radio.
The event of purchasing was much talked about and dithered over as happens to be our tendency. Some credit card points needed to be used up urgently- the gathering of them stretches back years- and a decision was finally made. A radio could be used by both of us and would be a throwback to less technologically-advanced times, a much-needed interval.
My Spouse returned from work on Tuesday and tore open the package like a happy child, setting up the first opportunity we had in a long time to partake of the airwaves.
The first show that we stumbled upon featured a local man reading selected articles of the day from the nation's various newspapers.
The man was orating very nicely until a sudden silence descended.
Concerned, I said, "what happened?" while wondering how we might get a refund. I am a territorial, skeptical pessimist at certain times; too often our purchases fail to operate and we must begin the battle to claim our money back. I am at times impatient and can assess a situation and assume the worst in less seconds than it takes to draw a breath.
That, in fact, was just what the fellow was doing. He was only pausing for breath, as humans do, and turning the pages of a newspaper.
As I stated, in my defence, it has been an awfully long time since I was witness to the intimate, here and now, real-life moments that a radio can present.
Contemplative and charming were the next few hours as we reacquainted ourselves with the true blessing of a radio.
There was a real person murmuring, unravelling the day and conversing with unseen listeners. At times I misheard a word and reached out my hand, in a fit of desire for instant gratification, to rewind the show back a moment or two in order to hear a repeat.
There is a particularly novel feeling in realising that the world of the radio, for the most part, has not been tainted by time and progress.
The beauty is that it presents a gentle, slow world where there is time to step back from the frenetic pace of life and connect with those willing to lend a patient ear for a few hours. We used our credit cards points too- at long last.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:02 AM
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
"...if we could just admit, even if we never quite believed it, that a tender sizzling rare grilled tenderloin was a luxury instead of a necessity."
From 'How to Cook a Wolf' by M.F.K. Fisher
At times one profound sentence reminds me of the simple life my Spouse and I are trying to live. We dwell on our actions less than we used to as a result of carrying them out for so many months: it is hard to believe that we have been involved with this for so long, it has almost become ordinary in its necessity; Spouse and I have been trying to lighten our material load for the better part of a year now. So, returning to the original, frugal-minded roots of my writing, I mean to recapitulate on a number of things that we have changed about our living style.
1. Economising on the space we live in.
We have been preparing for a time when we might not be able to afford a two bedroom apartment with living room and kitchen. A studio, we feel, might be a viable personal option in the near future. That said, we have since discovered that we appreciate the smaller spaces and working together on our independent projects. We have reached the liberating point where full half of our living space can be written off, in a manner of speaking. We know now that we can live in a compact space half of what we currently rent. For now, that extra space seems a luxury.
2. Examining our grocery receipts.
I imagine that the money we saved through meticulous scrutiny of receipts during the year would not, now, enable us to even buy a gallon of milk. The majority of errors found and corrected involved mere cents. They were, however, our cents, our hard earned money, and the habit allowed us to understand prices and recognise increase in prices long before newspapers reported inflation. A head start and working knowledge of prices is valuable in such times.
3. Evolving our cooking processes so that bulk and staple foods are the majority of our supplies.
Our grocery bills have reduced since we began to use a lot of cereal, flour, frozen fish and rice as part of our daily recipes. I make all of our bread now and as a result our ability to make dough never diminishes. Our determined motto of once-a-week-grocery has not failed us yet.
4. Drawing most of our entertainment from the local library.
We cannot imagine ever again setting foot inside a video store in order to rent movies. The library offers concerts which we look out for, and all sorts of self-help, financial and educational programmes. Our library is a splendid one and we become better in our hearts for visiting it once a week. It gives us all that we need in terms of books: should we find something we cannot seem to live without we will buy the book at a discount price online after establishing that it is indeed a masterpiece. Of course I make reference here to my current reading enjoyment, from which I took the opening quote.
5. Reducing the output of waste.
We use grocery bags for our trash disposal and go down to the dumpster only twice weekly. It seems that we fill less bags than we used to; perhaps the buying of bulk foods, the absence of plastic packaging from bread and other goods are some of the reasons.
To reiterate the superb M.F.K. Fisher, certain things are luxuries, others necessities, and we ought to know which is which.
Some days ago I observed one of my neighbours driving one hundred feet to the mailbox, whereupon they collected the mail and reversed smoothly back to their apartment.
As a walker; as a lover of fresh air; as an individual who tries to understand the difference between want and need; as a frugal person; as somebody whose aim is to live more gently for the sake of our fragile environment- I find it hard to identify with that careless sort of action.
All that the rest of us can do is keep our chin up and our eyes open wide, perpetually ready, ever careful- and always having a wonderful life.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:45 AM
Monday, March 24, 2008
"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."
In 2003 I was living in our oft-talked about small town in California. I have mused often in my writings about the wondrous thrift stores in the town and of the books I found there.
Not having grown up with many American books, I am finding now that I enjoy children's fiction immensely and am in a sort of second childhood when it comes to reading. I am, perhaps, taking in what I may have had should I have grown up here.
When I found an innocuous-looking volume- Paula Danziger's 'The Cat Ate My Gymsuit' - and a 25 cent price accompanying it, I scooped it up and walked the one third of a block home. We were so close to a treasury of literature. I shall not forget it.
Only upon arriving home did I find that the book, a work of fiction for young adults, was signed by the author. I was very excited. There is something to be said about holding a book that was clasped by its creator, whether one heard of them or not.
It was a special message to an excited reader; how lovely. I noticed that the book had been shut when the ink was wet and it had transferred onto the opposite page in reverse. Glad to have the copy, I consigned it to the shelf for later reading.
It was months later when browsing through the volumes that we owned that I took another glance at the book. I opened it to the page with the signature and message.
How funny that I had not noticed before, but the autograph was a little peculiar. I could not establish quite what struck me as unusual but most certainly I saw the writing in a new light.
I looked at the friendly scrawl and then over at the transplanted message. Like a bolt from the blue, I saw what had been bothering me. There were more words in one than in the other. They were two entirely different messages.
I was stunned at the revelation. Holding the second message up to a mirror I was able to see that it conveyed the same sentiment to the owner as the previous message- but the words were not the same.
I wondered how on earth the entire message had been written, by hand, in mirror image.
After a quick study of Paula Danziger's biography, I was humbled, as I so often am by writers and amazing, creative people.
She had once been involved in a dreadful accident which left her with brain damage. The injury meant that for a time, she had difficulty reading and writing- a nightmare for anyone but doubly agonising for a writer- and was for a long time afterward only able to scribe in mirror writing style.
She recovered over a long period, but never lost the ability to write both ways. Subsequently the brave and boisterous author would often sign books in both formats to the delight of her young readers. She never gave up and as a result brought joy to so many people.
Words could not do justice to my thoughts when I learned such about Paula Danziger, who passed away some years ago.
The book I held, and the lovingly scribbled words are a testament to her courage and good humour.
She is quoted as saying,
"I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I'd better get started before I got run over by a truck."
Life is short. We need good humour and courage like Paula Danziger was possessed with and we need to do our best in everything before it becomes too late.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:30 AM
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Notes on the Art of Poetry, by Dylan Thomas
I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.
Often I find myself admiring a work of art for reasons other than the most popular ones. I might inexplicably favour the most underrated song on an album or prefer a poet's least-known verse.
This is one of my favourite lines from 'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury:
"They read the long afternoon through, while the cold November rain fell from the sky upon the quiet house."
It is not one of the noted highlights of the novel; nor is it a particularly memorable line, or a remarkable one given the gripping nature of the rest of the book.
Still, I think that anyone who enjoys books would care deeply for that sentence. It is a peaceful combination of words, one that evokes an atmosphere of dreamy devotion to reading and learning.
Today is a quiet and tranquil Sunday; for that reason those very lines are turning in my mind and I expect to read a good deal this afternoon.
It is essential to sit, on occasion, as the skies open, and give oneself to an uninterrupted afternoon of books. Be surrounded by them- they can banish the gloom and can cause the the world to be still with a mere turn of the page.
I feel significantly stronger and more hopeful about everything simply for being in a room filled to the brim with nothing but honest to goodness books.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:34 AM
Saturday, March 22, 2008
"Oh, my friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left."
Spouse and I spent a large part of this Saturday waiting in line to buy odds and ends and I could not help but notice the majority of people in line were short tempered and strained. I thought of my mother, as I often do at such times.
My mother works at a checkout in a supermarket. Customers at times have tongues as sharp as swords, with poison-tipped edges. They might make a comment about the futility of her job, or laugh at the crowds she must face at holiday times. Mater deals with it as she sees fit which involves, for the most part, ignoring their rude ways and getting on with her work.
Once upon a time a customer came through with an entire cart full of goods and some fish, fresh and wrapped up in newspaper.
As the fish was passing along the checkout my mother saw, too late, that the customer had neglected to put the package into a plastic wrapper as all customers are requested to do; the juice of the herring was leaking, then, all over the counter.
It was on my mother's hands, her blouse and across the conveyer belt. It was on everything, as a matter of fact, except the customer's own groceries.
It happened about thirty minutes after my mother's work day had begun and her fresh uniform was a disaster of awful proportions.
The customer laughed cruelly and made a snide remark to my mother about her being a terrible mess and that she would carry a stench for the day.
Undeterred, my mother cleaned up as best she was able and continued the process of getting the customer out swiftly for both their sakes.
There was a daily newspaper in the customer's jumble. My mother quietly picked up the newspaper just as her job entailed, scanned its barcode and wiped the sodden counter with said paper before dropping the soggy thing into a grocery bag for the customer to discover later, much later on.
Never before or since has such a guileful, underhand but well-deserved act been performed by my mother. On bad days, thoughts of her fishy exploits keep her spirits up, and mine, too.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:28 PM
Friday, March 21, 2008
"I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I was growing up, the road that ran by our house was much quieter than it is today. We could walk our dogs, ride our bicycles in safety knowing that we were getting fresh air and exploring the world at the same time. We could almost have laid down on the ground and gone to sleep, it was that peaceful.
My aunt was motoring near our house one day when she passed my brother, at the time about seven years old, walking in the opposite direction toward the village.
It was a thoroughly legitimate trip; the traffic was light and he had walked the road often. My aunt flew home to my mother and asked if she knew that my brother was out walking.
My mother concurred that he had been given permission but she did not know what else my aunt had witnessed.
My brother was apparently keeping the traffic at bay with his small hands. Any time a vehicle came whizzing by he stood to the side with palms outstretched as if to say, "keep back. Don't dare to hit me."
Of course my brother did not know it- but at no time was he in any real danger, given that he stepped onto the grass when something passed him. It was a vision of trust and innocence and the fervent belief that we can each control our lives.
I write for pleasure; my brother plays guitar. This week he has begun giving lessons to a man who came to my home in Ireland to install some shelves and cupboards at my mother's bequest. The fellow had always longed to play an instrument and it transpired that my brother would teach him how.
The two stories are not unconnected: hands have power, and ordinary people can indeed take charge. With words or music we might be able to keep the monsters at bay and lighten the universe of its sad and heavy load.
The pen, it has been said for more than a hundred years, is mightier than the sword. The hand that holds a pen, plays a guitar, prepares food or utilises any needed and joyful skill has the ultimate power to change the world.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:20 AM
Thursday, March 20, 2008
"Most mothers are instinctive philosophers."
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
My supply of tea expired yesterday morning- the special, imported-by-my-mother sort of tea. It was raining heavily and the morning was grey so I was particularly in need of a fresh batch.
Shortly after lunch I walked to the mailbox and to my delight and astonishment found a carefully wrapped package. One who knows mothers need not dwell too much on the mystery of the contents.
I spent one hour last evening struggling in vain- as my neglected dinner congealed- to show Mater, via telephone, how to e-mail a picture. With all due respect, she did not understand a single word I said. She still does not know how to attach a file. That is perfectly acceptable.
You see, she possesses instead an innate knowledge of my tea rations and knows more than I do about what I need. Or perhaps she simply knew that I would require a strong, sweet cup of hot tea immediately following the computer lesson.
Thank you for the tea, Mater.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
...Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
-From the poem 'Kindness' by Naomi Shihab Nye
In Autumn of 2001 my Spouse, who did not yet know he was going to gain that title, sat reading in a cafeteria in a university in Boston, Massachusetts. He was waiting to speak to a professor he did not know, in hopes that he might be able to offer the institution some of his skills and that, in turn, a place in the esteemed university might better his own life.
Spouse was perched on a chair thinking his own quiet thoughts when he felt a presence nearby. He looked up to see an elderly lady of what he guessed was Eastern European descent.
"Young man," she placed a hand upon his shoulder, "I don't know what you're looking for but you will find it soon."
My Spouse was rather startled but he thanked her anyhow.
"That's very kind of you," he stammered.
She returned to her seat. A few minutes later Spouse's time was up and he got to his feet and left the cafeteria. As he was exiting he noticed the lady still sitting and reading calmly at her table as though she had not just performed a curious act.
He swept quickly out the door, took a right turn, sped along by the Charles River and through the streets, hurrying to meet the professor who was in another part of town.
As my Spouse prepared for the light to change so he could cross the street, Spouse noticed a particular face in the crowd on the other side. In another moment the figure was gone, presumably lost in the throngs of pedestrians. How the old woman had managed to scramble out of the building, overtake him and get to the other side of the street before he did is yet an unresolved mystery. Spouse insists to this day that it was most positively the same lady.
I would be happy to think that she was just being kind in offering consolation and encouragement to a lost soul. Perhaps, though, she was more wise than it appeared, for it was a distinctly peculiar thing to lay a hand on a stranger's shoulder and whisper mysterious kindness into his ear.
We cannot ever know what she meant. We can only search, every day, for what the old woman hinted at, and assume that somewhere along the way, everybody finds what they want- even if it is disguised as something else.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:15 AM
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"If heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?"
-from the book 'Angela's Ashes' by Frank McCourt
Musing on those words, it occurs to me that just the right blend of description can provoke a reader into longing for something good to eat. Truthfully I yearn for what is laid before us in that evocative paragraph.
Spouse and I have just received a copy of 'The Art of Eating' by M.F.K. Fisher, an erudite and charming food writer. Beginning in the 1930s, she wrote numerous essays and books on the gathering, preparing and eating of sumptuous dishes. This particular book comprises five of her best books.
Times were so often hard and when there were food shortages in her life Fisher improvised and created magical dishes out of almost nothing.
I recently checked the enticing volume out of the local library; against our practice of owning more books at such an uncertain time in our lives we subsequently bought a copy, understanding immediately that it ought to be as much a part of any household as the edible contents of a fridge.
We love reading, and we heartily enjoy food- the work of this thoughtful lady wrapped both of those habits into a marvellous feast both metaphorically and culinary-wise.
It is an oddity but I find myself both hungry and satiated when I read a passage from the collection of more than 700 pages.
Her palatable hymns to the simple potato, and to the oyster, are unsurpassed in literature; her depiction of good taste and perseverance amid financial struggles is a mark of her strength; Fisher's triumphant words leap from the page and stir my hunger like no book has ever done.
This gastronomer's work is, of course, about so much more than food. Rather like an onion, so to speak, it has layer upon layer, all touching upon old fashioned table practices, patience in cooking, slow, methodical rhythm of fetching and cleaning and slicing and cutting and grilling and, finally, tasting, swallowing, eating. It tells of an entirely different way of life and how the ritual of eating enfolds itself around occasions both momentous and slight.
On the baking of bread, for example, Fisher suggests that it is:
..."one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells...there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread."
It whets my appetite and is one of the most graceful and richly satisfying books that has ever fallen into my hands.
I must simply remember never to indulge in it when I am out of reach of food.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:09 AM
"A little nonsense now and then
is cherished by the wisest men."
Lay the blame on Cabin Fever or March Madness if you will. Spouse and I spent thirty minutes last evening attempting to take a Serious photograph for a Serious matter- applying for a travel document. Lots of paperwork would be involved in the matter we must undertake, and passports must be sent with the chosen picture. Red tape would abound, although in truth not as much as we have been through for other matters.
Spouse needed my digital picture, and it needed, as I said, to be Serious.
Could I look at the photographer without smiling? Could the photographer look at the subject without shaking?
Could we have an ordinary, reasonably solemn-faced, passport-sized picture of said subject?
No, we could not. Not with any ease.
At one point it occurred to me, while my Spouse was fighting increasing tension and weariness at the approach of the twentieth try, that if I did not stop smiling I could not travel to India.
The thought was so absurd that I immediately grew Serious and my Spouse took the picture. Not a twitch, not a glimmer of a smile is on that photograph and it is well worth one half hour of our time.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:03 AM
Monday, March 17, 2008
"The well-dressed man is he whose clothes you never notice."
-William Somerset Maugham
For the day that is in it, I was thinking this morning about Irish themes, whether they be shamrocks or green sheep.
It put me in mind of a colourful Irish T-shirt that my Spouse owned for a very brief period.
Spouse and I went house hunting in Texas three years ago; I had just been on an extended visit to Ireland and had brought a gift for one of Spouse's friends who lived in Texas. As per the friend's request, I had picked up an Irish-themed T-shirt- one that had a quaint slogan and a picture of a frothing glass of beer.
The friend had asked for such with the fervent hope that single women would give a second glance to the wearer of an unusual item of clothing.
He had seen my Spouse wear a similar-themed garment many times, one that featured cheerful, frolicsome sheep playing fiddles, and a typical, quirky Irish catchphrase.
Spouse's one had long since worn away and turned into a rag for household chores so while in Ireland I had also picked up another for my Spouse to replace the old. The new one depicted the four seasons of Ireland as being wet, wetter, more wet and rather wet. Spouse was enormously pleased with that and wore it as we ambled around looking for a home in Texas.
We planned to give Spouse's friend his gift as soon as we met him.
One afternoon while shopping we stepped into an elevator. A young lady glanced once at Spouse's entertaining T-shirt, smiled, and said a brief hello. We thought nothing much of it until it happened again at the next elevator, and again out on the street until it became a matter of course during the day.
After a hasty conference we opted to keep for ourselves the milder-by-comparison 'beer' T-shirt and gave the 'Seasons' T-shirt to my Spouse's friend with the gratuitous tip that the garment functioned just as it had been intended.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:17 AM
Sunday, March 16, 2008
"If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear."
-Winnie the Pooh
That member of my family tree whom I refer to as The Aunt- she was forever interfering and helping, bless her. She never listened to a word any of us uttered; I quite think that she was a victim of too much fluff in her own ear. She heard what she chose to but one could not ever say she listened.
As soon as her mind was set upon assisting, despite our protests, there was no stopping the force of her insistence.
Years ago during school holidays I applied for a summer job at a prestigious hotel. Some weeks later I foolishly commented that I had not heard word from the proprietors about my status and prospective employment. The Aunt tutted and twitched an eyelid in defence of her dear niece.
Some weeks later I received a curt and tense letter in the post from that establishment.
It told that, in reference to my cousin's letter, I should be aware that I would hear back from them in due time. The process, they insisted, was lengthy and I was to be patient with them.
Cousin? Letter? I seethed upon enlightenment. My distant cousin is a local politician and manages the financial affairs of The Aunt. Said Aunt had asked him to intervene and push the hotel management into offering me the job.
I wept ever so slightly and then fashioned a polite but resigned letter back to them indicating that I had had nothing whatsoever to do with the ghastly and embarrassing situation and was completely innocent of attempts at using far-flung relatives to gain employment.
I never heard a thing back from them. I never again mentioned any potential endeavours to The Aunt.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:58 AM
Saturday, March 15, 2008
"All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it."
When I was growing up, our house in Ireland, which is on the side of an increasingly busy road, was always a considerably convenient spot for stranded drivers. Our house is isolated and is the first one that people come to within the area.
Countless times cars faltered nearby and people arrived at our house pleading the use of a telephone, help with changing a tyre or water for the vehicle. Help was always asked for- we never had to see a helpless motorist deal with the situation alone- and it was always given.
I particularly remember when I was ten years old meeting one family whose car suddenly broke down at a disastrous time. They were on vacation and far from family and friends. There was no concept of a cell phone. That night there was lightning and the rain was falling in sheets. The family was welcomed into our house where they stayed for hours, their children playing with our toys and the adults drinking hot tea until the storm passed and they could fix the car and be on their way.
Under the circumstances, it was a very pleasant visit and it mattered little that we were strangers to each other. They needed urgent assistance and it was provided without hesitation.
Weeks later on their return journey the couple astonished us by stopping at the house and bringing my family a gift of some wine to say thank you. It was unexpected and none of us ever forgot it.
Over time, then, we helped and have been helped, as it ought to be.
The last couple of years have seen an ominous change. With the surge in the number of cell phones people can now call their friends from outside our home and do not bother to knock on the door to ask for anything. Perhaps that is acceptable; if they avoid bothering strangers unnecessarily then I could understand the reasoning.
Last year, however, things took a distinctly different turn. This story was related to us only after the fact.
A man, I believe in his fifties, stopped his car a short stretch from our gate. Unable to drive due to severe pain, he frantically called his daughter from his cell phone.
She fetched an ambulance for him. They talked to each other for a time and she kept him company during the tense wait.
He did not step out of the car, knock on our door and ask for help from real people inside the house- people who simply did not, during that time, look out the window to see anybody outside. He was dead before the ambulance reached him.
I heard the news from a local person who knew, from the sighting of the ambulance and other witnessed evidence, that a man had stopped his car and died outside our house.
I cannot claim that the outcome would have been different but assuredly the horrific realisation left me numb. It is hard to understand where on earth the fellow might have gained the impression that anybody, stranger or friend, would turn a dying man away from their door.
I also have trouble comprehending why his daughter did not encourage him to immediately seek the nearest house. We would have done all we could for him, had he just knocked on our door.
Paradoxically, in an age of personal music players and whole cars to ourselves, when the self-contained bubble of isolation expands to suit our ever individual needs, people still, and always will, need other people. The fact has been obscured by various lifestyles and gadgets but it holds true: we cannot get along without others.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:11 AM
Friday, March 14, 2008
"Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly."
In our small town in California I used the public transport system to its fullest extent. When I did not walk I caught a small bus to my college or to the next city, to bookstores and museums; or sometimes I took visiting friends from Maine on a tour of our place.
I remember once doing just that; Spouse was busy at work but I was with our friend and her husband; they were visiting from afar and I wanted to show them around the area. We had a marvellous time just riding around on the bus all the day long. Toward the excursion's end we were sitting quietly, heading for home. Two young girls- teenagers- climbed aboard the bus. We had been the only passengers.
The girls were very drunk. One of them turned to us and began to chat happily but in a slurred manner. I was nervous about getting involved in any debate with her and kept my conversation to a minimum. She asked us, in a moment of interest, for our names. Our friend's husband declared, on a whim, that he was 'George'.
I announced that I was 'Lucy'.
He is not George and I am not Lucy.
My friend is an honest soul and saw no harm in giving her true name. The girl then wanted to know our connection to each other.
Then my friend told a lovely untruth:
"She's my sister."
The girl nodded, and turned back to face the front of the bus.
A moment later she swivelled around to look at us again. She was struggling to focus but one way or another, we understood that she intended to talk to us.
"Wait a minute. You can't be sisters...Lucy has a different accent!" She stabbed an uncoordinated finger in my general direction.
Frozen in my seat, I realised I had absolutely forgotten that, unlike my friend, I was devoid of an American accent.
I did not know what to do; if I answered she would hear me and know that I had lied and frankly I was growing more fearful of the girl by the minute. I worried that she might turn aggressive. It was too late to concoct a story about being separated at birth or about accent being genetic.
I shook my head.
"She's my sister," insisted my friend desperately.
'George,' who had begun our descent into trouble, remained quiet and looked out the window.
"But you sound like you're from England or something," said the youngster unsteadily and now with narrowed eyes.
I shook my head again.
I had to give her credit at that point: I had grossly underestimated her powers of linguistic deduction and perception.
My head wobbled a third time. I kept my mouth closed and vowed to maintain a stern silence for the remainder of the journey. We three tried so very hard not to make any more eye contact with the pair, who were growing increasingly suspicious, for fear of upsetting the apple cart and causing untold trouble for ourselves.
After an uncomfortably long bus ride, the driver, sensing the tension and tiring of the unruly girls, ordered them to get off the bus. Our new friend stepped off the vehicle and fell to the ground in a drunken slumber. The bus pulled away, the driver apologised to us- which was immensely noble of him- and we could be ourselves once more.
Do not underestimate anybody. One just never knows.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:08 AM
How Long Is A Piece of String?
I'd ask Mater what was for dinner:
A bit of bread and pullit
You take a bit of bread
and you pull it
My mother was not fond
of giving straight answers
That was why
You never asked of her
How long would dinner be
Invariably you'd get back
How long is a piece of string?
And you'd retreat hungrily.
Afraid she really would be
Serving Pig's Cheek this time
Now I'm grown up I don't worry
because if it takes
three minutes on medium power
The box tells me so
It likes straight answers
And if I want to know what's cooking
I look at the box
It gives straight answers
How long is a piece of string
How empty is a straight answer?
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:04 AM
Thursday, March 13, 2008
"Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit."
A priest delivered an impassioned sermon recently at which my mother was present. He spoke of his stay in Lima, Peru, and of how he was dispatched to the poorest areas. It was an entirely new experience for him and, as a privileged outsider, he fought hard to fathom the hardships that the people faced.
In one remote village he met a group of children who were living a stricken life among the worst poverty he had ever seen.
The priest decided, after he lived but a short spell in the area, that he would buy the local children something nice; he had witnessed their uninhibited joy as they tasted meat for the first time and he wished to treat them to other new delights. He told the little group that he would buy them some ice cream.
He was rather surprised when the reaction was not particularly enthusiastic but nevertheless he decided to proceed with his plan. As they all walked to the store, he repeated again that he would buy them all some tasty ice cream.
The children nodded and shrugged nonchalantly and continued to walk solemnly beside the priest. He was utterly baffled by the lack of excitement in the faces of the children. Certainly they knew what ice cream was although none of them had ever tasted any.
He halted in the street and, assuming there still was a lack of clarity in his message, said that they would all get an ice cream each and that he would pay for it from his own pocket.
At that moment one of the older children took charge and spoke up for the rest.
"Father, if you have money to buy us ice cream, would you buy us some bread instead?"
Does a word exist to personify a moment such as that? Is there even a human sound to describe such a sudden and terrible comprehension?
I fear greatly that idle treats would turn to ashes in my own mouth should I think of those young souls who were, in truth, anything but children.
Nobody demands that we more fortunate people live similar lives of deprivation: there are times when kindly consideration directed at those most in need is the least that we can do. Thought costs us nothing; it will not, in itself, provide food for the poor but with it a certain respect and dignity is handed back to those who have none- and on finding ourselves a little warmer for the thought, we might further venture to give a little more.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:30 AM
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
I can wade Grief-
Whole Pools of it-
I'm used to that-
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet-
And I tip- drunken-
Let no Pebble- smile-
'Twas the New Liquor-
That was all!
Three years ago Spouse and I visited one of my relatives, who lives in Tennessee.
I had not met him before and he was enthusiastic about showing us around his home, preparing food for us and making us feel welcome. He had recently and abruptly lost his wife after fifty years of companionship. Since then he lived completely alone.
So it was quite something to see a man so elated to have a guest for whom to make a little cup of tea.
He had asked me before our trip if I liked tea, and I had replied that I most positively did. He promised me a very good cup, the best he could make, and I was eager to taste it.
On our first morning, as Spouse and I sat at the homely kitchen table, my relative placed a cup of tea in front of me. My heart dropped to my toes.
It was warm Camomile tea which just happens to be the one thing in all the world that I cannot abide by. I compare it, at best, to a cup of strongly perfumed, sickly-sweet, and cloying flowers.
I wanted so much to tell him that I could not drink it but I took one look at my relative, saw him glad beyond all our understanding to be sharing tea with me, and I knew that I could not reject the drink.
I glanced quickly at my Spouse, who lightly nodded at me to drink it.
I threw the entire cup of scented liquid down my throat in one gasp. My relative did not notice my inner struggle to keep from spluttering.
Still, because I drank it, a grieving old man was undeniably happy for a fleeting moment.
Because I professed to like it he prepared the tea again for me the following morning and I repeated the procedure.
We are visiting my relative again at the end of March and I intend to bring my own supply of tea this time. If it should happen, however, that he puts Camomile in front of me for the four mornings we stay with him, I can tell already that I will drink each one of them. There can be no other way, and when I get there I shall remember all over again why that is so.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:31 AM
"A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie."
My mother takes all my gentle mocking with good humour. I recently wished to write about a recipe she once- and only once- prepared for me when I was at the end of my schooldays. She devised a Bacon and Egg Pie, a tasteless and oddly textured experiment, and it still remains the worst thing I have ever consumed in my life, even considering that my diet has in recent years come to include squid and octopus. Even she admitted the dreadfulness of the concoction.
Mater was vexed that ten years later I still make mention of The Pie and she lamented that I say little about her that inspires warm thoughts. I have already insisted that she is very good and always takes my joshing lightly. That is a particularly useful resource and not to be ignored.
In recent months, since I left home again, she has had the grassy driveway paved; exiting from the sloping, narrow driveway onto a busy road every morning was taking its toll; and when she stuck the nose of her car onto the road one frosty morning and a raging, impatient driver shook his fist at her, it was then that she resolved to refurbish her driveway so that she could swing in there every evening without reversing, and so that she could see a little better when attempting to leave in the mornings.
As I said, I left before that momentous event took place but I heard about it as she bubbled happily over the phone. Some friends came by to see the driveway and share in the joy, and I heard about that. I heard about it, in fact, at least twelve times in one week until I had to insist she cease telling me. Mater kept forgetting that she had told me they came to see the driveway
until it all broke down one night and we laughed hysterically until the tears were pouring down her face. She never did tell me again, thank goodness.
When I suggest, even remotely, with the least hint of possibility, that Spouse and I might move to another country, she returns an hour or two later having done extensive research on prices of flights, current temperature in that very part of the world and nearby towns and cities; she becomes a veritable encyclopedia.
Once when I was at college in California, I was on my way to a class and strolling idly along by the cafeteria. There was a public telephone just outside the building and it was ringing. People were sitting in the afternoon glare and watching it ring. They had no cause to answer it: they knew nobody who would call a random telephone.
Something made me stride over purposefully to answer it. It was my mother, wondering if I might be at my class yet.
That is a true story: I had given her the number months previously and she called it at appointed times so that we could catch up.
This was not an arranged time though, and I had been passing by as she made the unsolicited, spur-of-the-moment, yet ultimately successful call to another continent.
It does not help matters that on a previous occasion I had become ill while talking to her. We were having a conversation about a hideous, loathsome book I was reading- one by Jonathan Hull, called 'Losing Julia.' I felt a cold, nasty shiver creep all over me as I talked and assumed it to be from thoughts of the novel.
In moments, however, I could barely speak and all Mater heard, poor woman, was, "I have to go. Not feeling too good." Then the line went dead and I was trying not to faint six thousand miles away from her.
What Mater went through in the next few hours was not much easier than how I fared.
It is no wonder, then, that she telephones random public phone boxes in hopes of checking up on me. She follows me around in the only way she is able: virtually, and in her heart, and I cannot fault her for that. The voice on the other end of the public telephone at my college has kept me company more times than I could possibly count.
My mother, in a moment of verbal entanglement, once earnestly defended a city familiar to us and known only for its crime:
"it's safe so long as you don't get killed there."
I knew just what she meant although I cannot translate.
My mother is perfectly all right so long as she does not cook Bacon and Egg Pie.
Just for the record- she makes a super cup of tea.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:00 AM
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.
-George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860
I am acquainted with a grey polar bear named Bruno; he is at least forty years old, eyeless, one-armed and lacking most of his inner stuffing. He has been handed down from generation to generation; of all his owners I have kept him the longest- more than twenty years of my life.
At five, when I had to have surgery on my eyes, Bruno went with me. My mother recalls that after my operation she was standing in an elevator, on her way to see me, when a bed was wheeled in. She did not recognise the eye-patched child on the gurney but immediately saw a familiar face peeking from under the child's arm: Bruno had, in a kindly gesture by the nurses, been equipped with eye patches as well.
His eyes have long since fallen out but he was my kindred spirit for that time and of course his presence was the only way that my mother knew it was I being wheeled out of surgery.
Bruno has lived in California and Texas; he is here with us yet and I do not intend to part with him.
My brother did not quite comprehend my fondness for the polar bear, however, and a terrible misunderstanding ensued last summer.
I had remarked to my mother that Spouse and I ought to clear and declutter our home more fiercely. Bruno fell, somehow, into the conversation and my mother misunderstood.
A short while later, my brother and mother, both in Ireland, were talking and he brought up the subject of the well-travelled bear. My mother relayed that I had been planning to dispose of Bruno during a clean up, if he were not already consigned to the dump.
My brother was dismayed and rattled by the suggestion that I no longer cared for the ragged bear. Alas, my mother did not think to mention the incident to me for a long while afterward and it was only during her visit in September to see Spouse and I that the fact became clear. My brother had been too sad to mention the tragic loss of Bruno and I had not known of his mistaken suspicions.
When I understood my mother had implied that Bruno was gone, I was furious with her. I had to remedy the situation immediately and I telephoned my brother to let him know.
My brother did not believe me. He did not say so but I got the distinct impression that he believed Bruno to be lost forever.
I sat Bruno down on our couch, propped a local, current newspaper beside him, placed a boldly-written sign by the threadbare leg: "I'M OKAY! - BRUNO," took a digital photograph and sent it to my brother.
He was enormously pleased to hear the news of Bruno's wellbeing and excited to see the old fellow after so many years.
Bruno may have lost the majority of his physical stuffing but he is full of old memories- and he is worth one thousand bears that never kept me company in surgery.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:56 AM
Monday, March 10, 2008
Canoes, trains, huskies:
in my land of dreams
these are public transport
Canoe-wittlers- fine fellows
well-skilled in the art
plant ten for every fallen tree
Commute to work
soft sway lolling
oars slapping water
Steam engines rolling
no jams delay the rumble
through the countryside
there a rabbit, there a hedge
train cuts a kind path
and leaves a gentle wake
Eager huskies racing us
to our destination
Trailing only fog breath and footprints
Meeting other husky drivers
pulling fellow commuters
swift and sturdy they ride
Canoes, trains, huskies:
in my land of dreams
these are public transport
Carrying each other
without need of smoke or siren
all going to the same place
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:41 AM
Beth has indirectly tagged me again (she nodded and I took up the challenge but she did leave a disclaimer that it was optional) to write seven things about myself that most people do not know. Here, then, are mine, for what they are worth.
1. I prefer to sleep on the floor rather than in a bed.
2. I have never been able to drink plain water- it must have a drop of fruit juice or something. It makes me choke if I try pure water.
3. When I was a child I saw one of the characters from the muppet-puppet show 'Fraggle Rock' in the closet. No, it wasn't a dream. I don't care what anybody says, and my brother still talks about it. Just digging up the picture gives me the creeps. Why, oh why couldn't I have seen one of the nice characters?
4. I'm not able to play a practical joke on anybody. I always want to tell them the truth before I begin, which defeats the purpose: "what I'm going to say isn't true, so don't be shocked..."
5. I love vacuuming carpets. Especially when there's extra dust- love the satisfying 'whooshing' sound as I masterfully vanquish the everyday debris.
6. Most of my favourite books were bought with bus money during my college days. I walked home from college a lot. They were worth every footstep.
7. I like to eat plain and simple ice cream, without toppings or flavourings apart from vanilla. The more it has, the less I enjoy it.
As Beth did, I nominate anybody who wishes to participate but there is no obligation. It is strange what I remembered when pressed to think of things.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:23 AM
Sunday, March 9, 2008
"The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history."
-Carl T. Rowan
Libraries are my haven. They are for me another world entirely and I could not do without them.
I feel like royalty when I have the privilege to pull volumes from shelves to bring home- as many as I might desire.
Our local library is our most recent discovery. Up until a couple of months ago we had been attending a more modern building which is part of the same network but a little further from our home. That library is shiny like a new penny, smells faintly of paint and, while it possesses anything physical that a book-lover can hope for, it is utterly devoid of charm.
On a whim Spouse and I thought to investigate the nearby building in the downtown- and glad are we for doing so.
Old as the hills, solemn stone like a noble university, familiar: we have come to adore its very walls. There are endless stone staircases, towering pillars and magnificent feats of architecture to behold. Heavy gilded frames house stern portraits of past Presidents and other notable historical figures.
Not a thing feels new save for the blinking computer terminals.
My sense of direction is something to weep over, and I am forever astounding my Spouse by getting lost but in the case of this library, in my defence, it does have a puzzling and mysterious layout.
My favourite section, the floor that houses the endless, erudite pages of E.B. White, George Orwell, Barbara Kingsolver, Firoozeh Dumas and James Thurber, among others, is not, so to speak, on any floor at all.
One accesses it through an elevator- it is worse for me to attempt to roam between the stately staircases. The elevator pauses midway between one floor and another- sort of a half-floor- and one steps out of the opposite door upon arrival.
There is a little window that overlooks the main reception area where one started from, and it is clear the position is neither low enough to be that level nor high enough to be on the next floor.
I stagger, then, under a low ceiling, around this non-existent floor of curiosity and indulge in some treasure hunting, all the while reminding myself that yes, it is indeed like another world: in the hidden depths of a secret floor of books, deep in the core of a princely, intricate library, I feel as though I am safe from everything destructive and unbook-like.
The world grows more cruel and oftentimes the only possible reaction is to retreat to the places that bring comfort.
There, perchance, nestled among the words of E.B. White and Barbara Kingsolver, may we read our way through until we learn from them how to deal with the outer world and how to face it with a good measure of courage.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:35 PM
Saturday, March 8, 2008
For Sale: baby shoes, never worn: Hemingway thus summed up his life in six words. I have been assigned to try my hand at something similar! Hurray!
I have been tagged by Beth. As I told her, I am highly honoured to have been the recipient of this little project. It does makes one feel part of the grander scheme of things, blogwise.
Here are the rules as I received them:
1. Write your own six word memoir.
2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like.
3. Link to the person who tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere.
4. Tag five more blogs with links.
5. And don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!
My six word memoir is:
Migratory bird, winging it through life.
I am new to blogging and although I read a lot of blogs, I do not, sadly, have five people to tag. I have tagged Beth at moredoors, and Tracey at quietpaws.
I hope I did this right!
Friday, March 7, 2008
Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
I once picked up a wonderful book on the subject of nature and conservation. Upon opening to a random page, my eye was right away drawn to a sketch, by the author, of a duck on a pond. The duck was on its back and it appeared to be laughing merrily. I showed the picture to my Spouse, who liked it immensely and said that the image would be worth the price of the book.
It was such a pleasant drawing and, as I am fond of animals and because I treasure images of happy creatures, I bought the book immediately.
Some months later I ventured to read the piece about the jolly duck, with the drawing I had looked at often since purchasing the volume of essays.
The piece was about hunting, which I thought rather peculiar in a book about a man's love of woodland creatures.
I understood quite quickly that the writer had been inclined to hunt purely for pleasure in the days before he became a conservationist.
With new context, I saw that the duck was not what I had envisioned: it was, instead, a sketch of the duck as it lay dead, quite dead, on its back.
I almost forgave the writer because, after all, he had changed his ways and become a wonderful storyteller and caretaker of nature. Still, it is difficult now for me to pick up that book ever since the living, laughing duck turned into a mortally wounded one. It is too close to the truth.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:02 PM
Thursday, March 6, 2008
"The question is not what you look at, but what you see."
-Henry David Thoreau
My Spouse and I visited the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland a couple of years ago. It was a first for both of us. We climbed a long and jagged path to reach the top- the sheer drop of 700 feet from the cliff into the grey and tumbling Atlantic Ocean filled me with a heartsick dread and I kept a reasonable distance away from the crumbly edge.
The wind up there would have frightened the most hardy of souls. We were there in March, a fierce and unpredictable season to be standing on the lip of the country. The few tourists roaming around were as astonished as Spouse and I: we had to bend down at intervals and grab the very grass we walked upon in order to save our bodies from being plucked by the sudden, determined wind and sent sailing into the salty air. I thought at times that my feet would not stay on the ground, such was the power and fury.
It was as alarming as that. From time to time the wind would shriek and howl and pull and grasp at us all, furious and impatient. I felt certain that the wind would not calm down until it had lifted somebody off their feet and spun them into terror.
If ever a force of nature seemed personified and to have intentions, it was there on the Cliffs of Moher.
Yet, here is the strange truth: it was exhilarating and I would not change a thing. I am grateful to have had the chance to visit the rocks so high above Ireland as the wind raged and seethed. It was humbling to be made to feel so tiny and useless against nature.
Stunned and wordless, Spouse and I descended the mountain to return to our car. As we were climbing into our vehicle we noticed a small van pull into the parking space next to us. Four or five tourists got out and began to take photographs of the sign which declared that they were officially at the Cliffs of Moher.
Each one posed beside the sign. Spouse and I thought that mildly amusing and rather quaint. So excited were they to be there that even the signpost was exotic.
And then those tourists did the most startling and puzzling thing: with photographs taken and proof of their visit gathered, they climbed back into their vehicle, paid the parking fee and left the Cliffs of Moher.
They went home, I imagine, and told their families and friends that they saw the Cliffs of Moher; or sent postcards declaring the same.
Until a person has the breath momentarily knocked out of them, both by the staggering beauty and by the force of the unyielding and mighty wind, they ought not to say they have seen the Cliffs of Moher.
It is to be felt and seen, up close and with hands firmly embedded in the jagged grass.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:39 PM
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
"We must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy."
-George Bernard Shaw
I was the quiet, docile one in all of my classes at school. I was sensible, I excelled in writing and I never put a foot wrong. Until a certain week in which we students were given an ordinary, routine assignment.
On Monday at the end of class our teacher would routinely give us the topic; on Tuesday morning before the bell rang she would ask a student to collect our work; on Wednesday morning just before end of class she would hand back our work courtesy of the student, and speak accordingly to those who had or had not completed the work.
She was very sweet and softhearted and any dissatisfied words from her afflicted the student in question with a large supply of guilt and misery on account of her tendency to be understanding about everything. If she was cross, it was justified.
So when I entered the classroom on a bright Tuesday morning, I had no fears. When I came to realise that I had forgotten all about the essay, I fell to pieces.
I hated to disappoint her and had to think quickly as the student came around to collect the homework. I shook my head at her meaningfully; she passed on. The student cared little about whether I had done the work or not.
I had made a decision. I would do the homework that very night, at about the time my teacher was discovering my work was absent, and offer it to her the next morning before she could say a word to me. It would be all right and things could be smoothed over.
The teacher was an understanding soul but I did not want to exploit that character trait I so admired. I was grateful to escape at the end of class on Tuesday and I vowed to do the work the minute I reached home.
I did not do it.
No excuses, no reasons, no homework-munching canines: I simply forgot about it once more. Perhaps I had grown complacent.
So when I came into class on Wednesday morning and remembered the whole matter, I did not fall to pieces as I had the day before. I sat at my desk, ominously calm, for the length of the class and attempted to establish what my options were.
I rapidly came to the conclusion that there was only one. It was shameless but it would work. The class was coming to an end at last and the chosen student began to pass the papers back to us. There were about ten minutes of class time left.
Once everybody had their papers in hand and the classroom fell silent in perusal of grades, I made my move.
Here I must confess the most awful part of the matter: the teacher, as well as being decent, honest and trusting and rather elderly, was also a nun. It is necessary to remember that I was but a young pupil, trying to learn the ways of the world and go about my business in the best way that I could.
Fluttering ever so slightly, I inched my way toward the front of the room where the teacher was discussing another student's work.
When she had finished I stepped up to her and in the most pleasant voice I had, said softly, "Sister-" and I am reluctant to recall that she was a nun- "Sister, I didn't get my essay back."
Her believing eyes opened wide.
"Oh, oh, let me see." She began to root around in her tattered briefcase for my paper. My throat was obstructed with a lump of some sort; possibly my last bit of decency was, in despair, saying farewell to my lying form and escaping for pastures honest.
After a good deal of searching, she then browsed the ceiling, the floor and her clothing. My paper was not there. She looked at me, devastated. She flapped her arms about a bit, patted herself down, gave up in misery.
"I'm sorry. I must have left it at home. I'll bring it back to you tomorrow. I'm very sorry."
I hurried out of the classroom. I had not presumed it to work so well and yet so miserably.
The following day, which was Thursday, my teacher came to me and apologised; she was extremely embarrassed but somehow, she said, my paper had become lost. She had not found it at her home.
"But don't worry," she said soothingly. "You always get an 'A'. Don't worry. I'll mark you down for an 'A' and it will be all right. I am sorry."
I felt I was a bit of dirt that even a worm would despise.
I went home that night and completed the essay, then crumpled up the paper, gave it the appearance of having sat in my bag for days, and presented it to my relieved teacher as the 'lost' paper for which I apologised for having mistakenly thought I had given her.
To make it worse, I did get my 'A' after all.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:25 AM
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
"He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words."
I have, of late, been reading 'No Place Like Home,' a collection of wholesome musings from a former writer for the Boston Globe. Linda Weltner invites the reader to walk with her through the rooms of her home, to peer into the soul of a loving, familiar family.
There is no perfection here: the book's cover depicts a frame hanging most crookedly on a wall; the writer's favourite sort of dinner parties were the friendly ones where dogs licked at the legs of guests from under the table. And it is there, between the lines, that we can see the truth of people.
I understand the sentiment. Our wedding party consisted of less than thirty close family and friends in a small Irish pub, a self-serve buffet of cold meat and salad, and much happy chatter. It was the most pleasant meal Spouse and I have ever had and some of our guests have enthused the same.
There was, amid our chaos, fondness and good spirit. It was a truly honest party, in that each guest's presence was valued. There was certainly no extravagance, there were no rules and there was not a hint of formality.
What had all the appearance of a simple day sparked, inside each guest, something far more long lasting. It was all we wanted and much more.
Linda Weltner's book is the first I have read in a long while that speaks to my heart about goodness and family taking precedence above the other elements of life. Lashings of money cannot buy the best memories if there is no love of ordinary, day-to-day things and if there is no interest in people.
The book struck me for its emphasis on what I firmly believe: the real magic is to be found in the ordinary day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:48 AM
"The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate."
I worked at casual jobs while still in school. Mostly they would involve weekends but, depending on the particular institution I was employed in, I sometimes worked late on the evening of a weekday.
Wherever I worked, whatever I did, my mother would drive from our home in the countryside into the city to collect me. I was obliged, on occasion, to work past my official finishing hour and do some overtime. When this happened she would wait in the car under a street lamp or any light and turn the next few pages of her book.
I worked as a cashier at a supermarket at one such point in my life. Unlike my other places of employment this was not in a cosy corner or on the side of a street but at the far end of a monstrous parking lot that housed a giant shopping mall and a tremendous cinema.
When I had been working there not more than a few days, my mother and I were still not quite certain how to find one another in the vast darkness.
On my third evening, when previously we had found each other by sheer good luck, benevolent fate or by my mother being owner of the solitary vehicle in the parking lot, I stepped out into the pitch black night /early morning and could not find my Mater.
The car park was full to capacity and I stood desolate, cold and tired, eager to be home and soothing my feet.
From my pocket came the sweet tinkle of my cell phone registering an instant text message.
It said, and I can remember the code after all this time: opos cin wn ur fnsd
Of course it was Mater, letting me know that I could find her opposite the cinema whenever I was finished work.
Communication is such a curious thing. She had written in a language that neither of us had studied or learned and one that ultimately meant nothing without context. Yet, I made my way over to the cinema and I found her without any fuss at all.
I suppose it might depend a lot on whether one wants to understand, or listen, or hear what is being said. Not that one needs to be in a desperate situation to negotiate language but really wanting to do so goes more than a little way toward understanding.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:49 AM
Monday, March 3, 2008
"Your neighbor's vision is as true for him as your own vision is true for you."
-Miguel de Unamuno
This morning I peeked out the window and felt an unexpected rush of feeling as I saw one of our sleeping bags begin its journey to Africa. Our neighbours' car was rolling slowly out of the apartment complex; I had just seen them place the heavy sleeping bag on the back seat.
On Saturday Spouse and I had occasion to go upstairs to our neighbours' apartment. We carried in our arms an assortment of carefully chosen items to be sent to Kenya for displaced and impoverished people.
We had packed, among other things, a rice cooker, our second rolling pin, some clothing, some toys and books, cups and a plate. The sleeping bag was brought upstairs the following day.
As we were preparing to exit our apartment with the box of donations, I commented to Spouse about how odd it felt.
"We're leaving our apartment but even though it's snowing outside, we're not putting on our jackets! Doesn't it feel funny?"
It did feel funny, and wholeheartedly very sad that we have not knocked on any neighbour's door in the longest while.
This last couple of years has been the most strange for Spouse and I, with the fewest interactions and the least number of greetings.
Ten thousand miles and some time hence, a needy soul in that mountainous and dry land will silently accept the things we gave away and, in all likelihood, share them immediately with their own neighbour and fellow man.
I wonder which of us is the poorer.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:53 PM
"We have too many high sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them."
"Tell your husband that he can even give us everything he has, everything."
This Friday past, to my disbelief I found myself speaking to one of our less elusive neighbours.
I had returned from checking our post box and she raced downstairs to catch me before I was swallowed up again by the mouth of my apartment- such is how we live our isolated lives.
She, an African lady, held a piece of paper in her hands. Clearly she was anxious to relay an urgent message to me.
With my key halfway into the lock, I turned to greet her.
She explained that she was collecting items to send to the homeless and broken people in Kenya, the ones displaced as a result of the recent political crisis.
She begged me to seek out anything in my home that I could spare whether it be utensils, clothes or food. Even money, she added, would help.
She repeated over and over: anything, everything, anything.
Then she advised me, in fragmented but sincere English, that I ought to ask my husband as well- that he could give everything he had. Everything.
I liked that a lot, especially considering our most recent feeling toward material possessions.
I liked, too, that a message can somehow be as clear as a bell even within the awkward confines of a limited grasp on the language.
We two neighbours shook hands and introduced ourselves at long last. I smiled and assured the lady that I would do my best.
It is rare that I meet with such fervour and honesty, such directness. I am sure that desperation pushed her to talk to me, forced her to appeal so openly.
I meant those words: I would help her in any way possible.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:13 AM
Sunday, March 2, 2008
"Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You'd have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four's name were Albert, things would be hopeless."
-From 'The Phantom Tollbooth' by Norton Juster
I came across a slight piece of information just a few days ago: my upstairs neighbour, who has been plaguing Spouse and I for months by performing strange acts of heavy footstepping above our heads- motions that rattle our apartment and our minds- shares a first name with me.
It was a sobering discovery. Always it has felt peculiar to meet another with my name but that particularly was the very last thing I wanted to share with our neighbour. I am at present working on my patience and tolerance and attempting to develop an aptitude for ignoring the sounds of sudden, violent thumping through the ceiling. She and her family are the opposite of us in every outward way. How could we possibly be of the same name?
Perhaps I am not alone in feeling possessive about my first name; I dare say that it is a particularly selfish trait to consider it mine to begin with as though it were a thing to be exclusively owned and pocketed. Everybody must be called by some name or other and there are, I dare say, more names than there are people.
My Spouse and I do not call each other by name. During the course of my day I talk to myself with gusto but do not, of course, address my own self by name. As a result, I sometimes forget entirely that I have a first name; seeing it glisten on my neighbour's mailbox startled me out of my reverie.
And still, I do not know why.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:19 AM
Saturday, March 1, 2008
"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
We own a copy of 'A Journey Around My Room,' by Xavier de Maistre. Republished recently after too long a hiatus in the world of books, it was written in the 1700s while de Maistre was under house arrest for becoming embroiled in a duel.
He paid homage to his furniture and the various objects in his single room by turning them into items of great mystery, curious history and implements worthy of consideration.
For example, were I to take a look around the very room I am in, let us see what I might find. Initially uninteresting and bland bits and pieces can, with a wave of the pen, find new life and appreciation. Who knows where one thought might lead to, like stepping stones one at a time.
Before me there rests a cup: I had a hot drink of tea minutes ago. The purple cup is emblazoned with the image of an elephant. The animal is adorned with black and golden accessories and this picture is obviously a symbol of respect and part of something larger. The edge of the vessel is laced with golden paint of a sort, rather like an ornate oriental rug.
My mother had a cup just like mine until recently.
When I left Ireland in April last year I purchased for Mater and I two identical cups; we planned to sip our tea at the same time when we could, albeit in our varied time zones and with an ocean between. We purchased the cups in a supermarket in which I used to work and in which my mother still does; I still regularly hear from my mother's colleagues although that era was some years ago. We stay in touch and I visit the store whenever I am home. When I first began to work there, I wondered if Mater might find it awkward to deal with my presence. What turned out to be the most memorable was this: on the first day, with me looking splendid in my uniform, we realised that I was a smaller, younger version of my mother. I became known as 'Mini-Mom' for the time that I accompanied her to work.
I had no jacket; I missed out on that part of the uniform. We shared a jacket so one or the other of us, it seemed, was always cold. I ought to have had one to myself. It was worst on the days that I had to stock freezers and unload ice cream...
I was, a few moments ago, just looking at an ordinary cup- but you see, the cup is never empty. There is always a camouflaged memory waiting to leap forth. Everything contains a story within.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:50 PM