Wednesday, April 30, 2008
"Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing."
-From the novel 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
I should have known. I should have known better than to mention to my mother that I had run out of tea and drained my supply.
I should have known that she would not answer the telephone when I called thirty minutes later.
She did not, could not answer.
She was not there.
She was standing in line in the village post office making absolutely sure that I would get my tea.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:19 AM
"A good companion shortens the longest road."
I wrote the following Haiku-form poem on the occasion of Spouse's last trip away from home. Despite the lonely days I spent, there was still that glad awareness of their being temporary. The house would not be empty for long.
This was written, then, not as an overstatement about Spouse's absence, but in regard to the void that lonely people suffer the world over, without respite.
He has gone away
emptying all the days like the
sound of one hand clapping
or the smell of bread
that turns out, at last, flawless and
no one there to agree
or a word that's just
out of reach, the tip of the tongue
no one to ask, it melts
like the sound of one
hand clapping through duplicate days
when he has gone away.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:29 AM
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
"Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them."
I was eleven years old and my classmates had been making vigorous noise while the teacher was out of the room. She sought to punish us all- not knowing for certain who the troublemakers were- and looked desperately around the classroom for something with which to torment our brains.
She spied her water jug on the desk.
"Write two entire pages about that jug," said she.
We were rather dismayed, as was her intention. How to write so much about a plastic object that was a utility for drinking?
Worse still, the piece was to be created at home, during otherwise free and fun time.
I always liked to write, however forced the circumstance, and I sat down to do it that evening with my mind separated from the fact that it was supposed to be a punishment.
I still am unsure where the story came from but I wrote, from the animated point of view of the jug, about the imagined formation of said item in a factory and about how it- I- was transported from place to place before reposing on a shelf waiting to be bought by my teacher and used in a moment of discipline. I became the jug and I let the words pour out.
My tale, which flew on for three pages, was singled out in the class, much to my astonishment. It was given a special credit for originality- which leads me to believe that by the following day the teacher herself had forgotten the very reason for the assignment- and I kept that story safe long after the book was filled with other scribbles and scratches, and long after I moved on from that class and that part of my life.
My mother was rummaging in the attic recently and she came across some old schoolwork of mine. As of this moment the jug story is still missing but I immediately recalled it and asked Mater to keep an eye out for the journal which had to be lurking somewhere among the dust and personal effects of my childhood.
The incident of impropriety that inspired the exercise really ought to have been forgotten long ago but I immortalised that moment, albeit unintentionally, for myself.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:04 AM
"I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed."
Some years ago my mother and I were in Heathrow Airport in London waiting for a flight to Ireland.
I went to fetch us some water and upon my return found Mater listening intently to a little old Irishman.
"...been living in London for twenty years..."
I left them to it and quietly watched the planes from the viewing area. Nearby I heard the sprightly man regaling my mother with all sorts of tales. I could not discern the measure of her expression but considered that he must be at least a bit interesting.
As I listened I caught some pieces of the conversation that this Irish fellow was revealing:
"...too many immigrants in London..."
"...hordes of them...thieves...Eastern European..."
I brushed aside the distant words "last call for flight number..." in order to ascertain that I was hearing him properly.
I was flabbergasted and, to judge by the look upon my poor mother's face she too was slowly curling up inside and waiting for an inner flight to take her far away.
"Absolutely last call for flight number..."
It was dreadful. Clearly an immigrant himself, he was full of bitterness and ruminating in a most horrible way on the very subject he ought to have been more sensitive and knowledgeable about. He did not have a good word to say about anything, and for some reason he expected my mother, a stranger to him, to be delighted by his talk.
It carried on for what seemed a very long time, he not noticing for a moment that my mother had mentally vacated the area and turned off all the lights, in a manner of speaking.
At last he stopped, presumably having exhausted his repertoire of name-calling. He sat back and folded his arms. He sighed, exhausted from the rambling.
My mother said not a word. She really could think of nothing to say in response.
The next thing that happened was rather startling. The man leaped up from his chair, the expression on his face one of confusion and disorientation. He moved as quickly as he could to the nearby desk.
"My flight," he said breathlessly. He gave his name.
"I am sorry," said the flight attendant rigidly. "We were calling you. I am afraid that you have missed it. We did call you many times."
"No, no!" he cried.
"There will be another flight... let's see... tomorrow morning."
"I was right here!" he snapped furiously.
The lady looked straight into his eyes.
"The flight has departed, Sir. There is nothing that we can do except try to put you on tomorrow's flight. We can try."
Tears came to his eyes then and his expression changed drastically.
At that point Mater and I had to catch our flight and we went home, quietened by our own thoughts. I like to think, in the better moments, that he learned a little something that day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:52 AM
Monday, April 28, 2008
"Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which man soars above the earth and all temporary nature."
Sunday afternoon Spouse and I spent an hour or two cleaning heartily. We emptied some cardboard boxes, decided on more superfluous items to be sent to the dumpster, tore up some papers, parted with a broken scanner we had had hopes of rescuing, dismissed an old lamp that we never use and never miss, and generally gathered an enormous and satisfying collection by the door.
The heap made us rather proud of ourselves for being able to let go, which we have become reluctant to do of late. There are long stretches of time where simply nothing wants to be disposed of and we must wait until we are ready to send things on their way. Yesterday, happily, was one of those days.
The pile remains by our door even now due to the rain but it matters not because the difficult part is done.
As I glanced out the window yesterday and mused on the weather, and on what we had done, I noticed one of our neighbours walking back and forth from her car to her apartment. It appeared that she had extended family visiting her and that they had brought the contents of an entire department store along with them.
Boxes and boxes were carried into the apartment by several visitors; perhaps, I thought, there was to be a wedding or some other occasion.
I reflected on the fact that people can be so different, and the things that bring happiness vary also. There, we saw, was one family bringing endless wrapped packages and appliances and gadgets and pieces of household ware into their home, while Spouse and I were doing our very best to keep the same out of ours.
From where I stood, the couple looked very happy. We are happy too.
Now, if only the weather would allow us to complete the assignment.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:34 AM
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.
I did not eat in a restaurant until I was in my twenties; despite working for years in numerous eateries I never had inclination or superfluous funds to dine in any.
When I was nine years old my family was given, by a neighbour grateful for some help, a gift of a ticket for Sunday lunch. The meal was to be had in a rather nice hotel in the city, about fifteen miles from our home in the countryside.
The anticipation was palpable, and when the big day came we all dressed up, shined our shoes, polished our faces and prepared to partake of a lavish banquet.
I had a nagging headache from the moment I awoke but I vowed not to let it bother me.
I thought I knew what caused it: I had- and still do have- allergies to perfume or strong synthetic scents. They cause me dreadful headaches which always turn to migraines and which invariably lead to my getting physically sick until I fall asleep where it thus passes off.
My mother had, in a sweeping moment of housekeeping, put a air freshener in my bedroom and it had leaked steadily throughout the night. I must surely have been breathing the fumes in my sleep. No wonder, then, that I was a little groggy. Still, I attempted to shake it off and I pushed forth with the adventure without saying anything, as was my curious habit.
We reached the hotel and oh, by then I could hardly see, so blinding and harsh was the pain. I still did not want to spoil the treat and I thought I might yet be able to keep quiet.
Then the food, the glorious Sunday roast of beef and potatoes, gravy and vegetables, was served before us. I can yet visualise it; but seeing was all I did, or that any of us did. The serving of the meal was the end of everything for me. I needed to get sick urgently.
I ran outside, onto the street, and was careful to do what I had to do behind the large board that said "HOTEL" so that I might be as inconspicuous as possible. Goodness knows why I bothered so much but I had my peculiarities.
Of course our luxury lunch was not an option after that, and we all went home sadly and quietly stunned. Nobody berated me, nobody complained except inwardly with rumbling, wistful stomachs.
It was just lunch, but it meant a great deal to us. I have eaten in many a restaurant since that aborted attempt but I still relish every occasion.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:42 AM
Saturday, April 26, 2008
"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects."
I have previously noted my thoughts on a story by the American writer O. Henry and how I personally believed his characters ought to have behaved differently in a certain situation.
That said, I do respect O. Henry and admire his work. In October of 2005 I had the privilege of attending a free, three-week writing class hosted by a locally published author. Seven of us sat in O. Henry's dining room in Austin and accepted advice on writing while gazing in awe at our surroundings.
I took the class primarily in order to be part of such an event. I wondered at the fact of my being in the home of a long-gone influential writer of short stories.
I learned many a thing while I was there, the most lasting of which was this:
everything is connected and inspiration for writing can come from the most benign source.
Our host performed a magician's party trick of sorts: one unrelated word, one far-flung thing hurled into the circle, and we were asked to declare the first image that sprang to mind.
Stockings, she said to us.
Around went the word, circumnavigating the room, taking on unforeseen meaning, increasing in scope and placing itself into the midst of unexplored ideas.
That last was mine. I had just that morning been discussing with my mother the best way to stall the tragic and ominous death rattle of my cherished car whom I had affectionately named Mrs. Doyle.
Mater, with an endless supply of magic tricks all her own, suggested that the trouble might be a loose engine belt, and to wrap a stocking around it temporarily.
All present in O. Henry's house examined the results of the exercise and were astonished that so much imaginative wealth had come from one lone word. No doubt kernels of entire stories began to develop in that afternoon in my classmates' minds and in my own.
Stockings to car engines. Every thing in this world to another, linked and entwined with invisible threads.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:56 AM
Friday, April 25, 2008
"Everybody, my friend, everybody lives for something better to come. That's why we want to be considerate of every man- who knows what's in him, why he was born and what he can do?"
We went along to the library last night and sat for close to two hours just reading and researching our respective favourite subjects.
I was not watching the clock, nor was Spouse and while I was burrowing my way through a shelf of magazines on the other side of the room I heard him advise a librarian that we were just leaving.
It seemed that we were indeed about to exit the building because they were going to close the building. Rather than inform them of my particular desire to remain in the library during the nightly period of closure, I scrambled to put some items back in their place while Spouse went downstairs to check out our chosen books. As a result he reached the main desk without me by his side.
The librarian, who we have not conversed with but who we see weekly through our habit of unfailingly and routinely taking copious amounts of books and films, looked at the computer as Spouse's card was scanned. She was shocked.
"Nothing on hold?" she asked, feeling that something was not right. We regularly have a selection on order.
"No, not today."
"How come?" She just had to know.
"The weather is much better and we've been walking a lot more. There's not much time for films."
She seemed to accept that very reasonable reply. Something else was missing, though.
"And your wife! Where is she? You two are always together!" By that point I am certain the librarian was sincerely doubting it was the same fellow at all. The pattern had been mysteriously fractured.
I emerged just then, rather breathless from running down three flights of stairs, and she smiled.
"There she is!" she enthused. "I was wondering."
We thanked her for considering us, and went on our way into the night. It was a most surprising pleasure to be missed, and to think that perhaps, after all, somebody had almost been expecting the pair of us. For the first time in quite a long while we thought that our presence had not gone unheeded.
Of course it works both ways; it means that we all ought to be thoughtful and observant, for we simply never know when a simple, single word to a stranger might be the flower or the thorn that changes their day.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:28 AM
Thursday, April 24, 2008
"Not a gift of a cow, nor a gift of land, nor yet a gift of food, is so important as the gift of safety, which is declared to be the great gift among all gifts in this world."
-From The Panchatantra Fables
Last evening, as is becoming my custom, I set out for a stroll to meet my Spouse who again was walking back from work.
I set foot on the bridge and as I did so, glanced down into the undergrowth that runs along by the railroad track and the riverbank.
For once, there was somebody sitting down there. It struck me as highly unusual because I had never seen a soul in that place, but it was rapidly superseded by the fact of his having a towel on his head which was in itself overwritten by the realisation that the towel was the only garment he wore.
I was quite jolted and all of a sudden the path between my Spouse and I seemed ten times the journey. I passed a little old lady on my way; she glided along and I briefly considered warning her of the sight.
However, just a step behind her I met my Spouse and we started out for home, with the old lady in front. I told my Spouse immediately.
Two young women approached us from the direction I had walked in, and warned us; they were quite concerned at the odd spectacle and I explained that I was aware of it having come from that end of the bridge and that we would call the police. We considered it necessary for the safety of the man - who knew what state of mind he was in?- as well as for our own comfort.
The two then indicated that the little old lady really ought to be told before she reached the end of the bridge. Spouse and I hurried and I reached her halfway along the path.
I did my very best, I truly did.
She could only say, "I don't understand. I don't understand."
She spoke no word of English.
I made numerous efforts but all were in vain. I waved my hands. She waved her hands.
I shrugged; she shrugged. I considered that I might frighten her if I continued to attempt to explain what I was trying to tell her and so I gave up.
I inwardly wished her well, said pointlessly that I had only been trying to help, and caught up with my Spouse.
We did telephone the local police as soon as we reached home.
They were extremely helpful and promised to send somebody over to investigate immediately.
Which brings me, at last, to one of the main reasons we are living in the United States.
In Ireland, if one calls the local police station for help, one might be told that one has called the incorrect police station for one's area.
"It's not our jurisdiction," I have heard it sung loftily many times.
One calls, then, the next station and is advised to refer back to the original station or to a third and back and forth it goes until the crisis passes and the need for police is over, one way or another.
It is, in my limited experience, as bad as all that, at least in the area I grew up in. I have heard firsthand tales of police being called about a burglary or somebody having a rock thrown through their window, and the hours and days passed and the police did not arrive.
My Spouse grew up in a different country but with similar tales of woe.
Once, in California, we needed to go out late at night. We lived in our dear small town and my Spouse wore his pyjamas and stayed in the car while I dashed into the supermarket to fetch an item for some project or other he was working on.
He stayed at the far end of the car park. At the time we had cell phones with an unlimited calling plan and between us had endless minutes of time.
I was connected then, via an ear piece, to my Spouse as I exited the store. Several young fellows- at home in Ireland we would refer to them as hooligans- walked close to me and one said,
"do you have any change?"
They did not know that my Spouse could hear everything, or that I had a car waiting for me. They assumed that I was walking home alone.
"No, I don't," I said as amiably as I could. I kept moving.
"Are you lying?" came a voice behind my back.
I turned around and pondered what on earth to reply to that ridiculous and rude question.
"If I was lying, I'd most likely not tell you," I said logically.
They moved toward me and then observed that there was a car, and that I was about to get inside it.
"You're only brave because you have a car," called the leader of the pack.
I said nothing; perhaps they were right but it mattered not. We drove away and left them at a loose end.
The very moment we reached home we called the local police and my Spouse told them that I had been threatened. The police not only went to the store to investigate the matter but kindly called us back later that night with the news that the young men had all been in violation of their parole and that one of them had been arrested.
I want to feel safe; I want to feel that I can ask for help and that it will arrive on time and without discussion about area and district.
Since Spouse entered the United State ten years ago and I six, we have both had numerous positive, reaffirming experiences with the police and we cling to that when wondering where to live, when trying to decide which place satisfies most of our priorities. Because, when all is said and done, no country will have everything we want, all the time.
We feel safe and protected here, and that is no slight thing.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:01 AM
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
"Much may be done in those little shreds and patches of time which every day produces, and which most men throw away."
-Charles Caleb Colton
Since I met my Spouse I have travelled far and often. I forget, at times, that my life is not so ordinary or typical of the people I grew up with.
I always feel that I could and might live somewhere else at any given time.
Shortly after our wedding I went to the local post office in the village to mail my application for a new passport- a document that has become, in recent years, very valuable to me.
I desired a new one with my new name and anyhow, since I was leaving my country for the foreseeable future, the expiry date was going to arrive before I had a chance to visit Ireland again. Renewing a passport is much more efficiently done when in one's home country.
"I didn't know you had to get a new passport if you changed your name," the fellow in the post office said with undisguised curiosity.
"Oh, no, it's not required," I insisted. "I just wanted to."
Then I continued, in a state of solemn urgency and with eyes wide,
"and anyway, my passport expires in just three years!"
The silence that followed was deafening; the entire post office ground to a halt. I did not get the reaction I anticipated.
For a brief moment, in my naivety, I think I expected him to start desperately flinging papers and envelopes with supreme speed, and with a cry of,
"well, why are we standing here talking? Let's hurry! Let's go!"
Nothing of the kind happened; he did not respond to my enthusiastic outburst and instead shuffled some papers slowly, coughed once, refused to meet my eyes, and quietly accepted my payment for the postage.
I felt rather silly at the time but now I see that I said nothing wrong, that people are simply different.
I saw three years as a short spell in which I might not come home; he envisioned three years of daily work in a dimly-lit post office in a tiny village, and a span of time that he could not comprehend preparing for the end of.
Of course, we were both right.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:05 AM
"The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man."
When Spouse and I visited my relative in Tennessee earlier this month he discussed illness and health with us. We had already noted a number of curious things about his lifestyle that made us feel both humbled and determined in our own life.
He plucks vegetables and fruit from his garden when he feels the need to.
He shrugs off all stresses and tensions as well as he can and considers them a part of everyday life.
He rises at 3 AM every single day and takes a walk that encompasses a round trip of several miles before he returns and eats breakfast.
He fishes when he can, for food partly, for pleasure mostly, and he throws back the fish that he does not need for dinner.
We began then, one afternoon, to talk about what effect such attitude and routine had on his state of health. He revealed to us that, a few years ago, he suddenly had a very strange feeling in his head that he could not explain. It lingered, he said, and he became increasingly worried so he telephoned a neighbour friend of his for help and advice.
He described what he was feeling and the frightening unfamiliarity of it. His hand was clasped to his head as he clutched the telephone, talked to his friend and attempted to deal with the enormous potentiality of an imminent trip to the hospital.
After a moment's thought, his good friend had to tell him placidly that he was experiencing a headache.
"A headache?" he'd replied, astounded. "This is a headache? I've never had one. I didn't know what it was."
He is seventy seven years old and has had one single headache in all his life for which he took no medication.
He is unique, we say; this must be a rare occurrence.
It ought not to be.
The first instinct is, sadly, to wonder at the lack of headaches in an ordinary man, rather than the fact of too many people having too many headaches.
It is lamentable that we have rationalised and accepted certain things to be normal instead of ever asking 'why' and stopping to really consider why our pharmacies are saturated with myriad bottles of medicine that contain one thousand mysterious capsules lying in wait.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:37 AM
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
The lion is called the king
Of beasts. Nowadays there are
Almost as many lions
In cages as out of them.
If offered a crown, refuse.
-Lion, by Kenneth Roxroth
I had reason to muse this morning on the fact of my never having visited a zoo.
When I was younger my mother promised to bring me to a zoo some fine day. It never came to pass; time rolled along the way that it does and ideas melted into oblivion the way that they do, and we forgot all about it.
On reflection I think that I am glad to never have attended a zoo.
Once, in California, Spouse and I went along to a store that sold fish- a unique opportunity to sample genuinely fresh food. It was convenient to go there because one could buy large amounts of meat or fish for far better prices than those found in an ordinary supermarket.
As we waited in line to order what we had chosen, I raised my eyes to an aquarium inches from my face. It was filled with frogs and, I stress, crowded to maximum capacity. One would have had difficulty inserting so much as a straw into the tank. The frogs were crushing one another; there were flies hovering sleepily over the creatures and worst, some of the amphibians were yet moving.
I wished each one of them to be dead but a number were staring glassy-eyed, trying to breathe and unable to do so pressed up against the wet glass.
There were streaks on the tank that brought shame to my eyes and heart. It was one of the most dreadful sights that I have ever witnessed. No, it was not a zoo but it was further proof that what we humans do to animals is at times unforgivable. Whether a zoo or a filthy, heaving aquarium, it is nevertheless contemptible.
I treasure some words from one of my favourite books, 'West With The Night' by pioneer aviator Beryl Markham. To this day I remember those frogs with revulsion and I firmly believe this sentiment:
"To an eagle or to an owl or to a rabbit, man must seem a masterful and yet forlorn animal; he has but two friends.
In his almost universal unpopularity he points out, with pride, that these two are the dog and the horse. He believes, with an innocence peculiar to himself, that they are equally proud of this alleged confraternity.
He says, 'Look at my two noble friends- they are dumb, but they are loyal.'
I have for years suspected that they are only tolerant. "
Animals born into captivity are not necessarily suffering: zoos have standards and regulations and are bound by laws to treat the creatures with affection and care; and my example of the aquarium is an extreme one.
Justification might, I expect, arise from the necessity to share exhibited exotic animals with city dwellers, to experience the diversity of nature.
Still, to witness such creatures in their natural habitat and there only is the most educational endeavour a person can undertake: to watch the wildlife in the very wild they belong in and not in a man made enclosure that in all likelihood tampers with the course of things and influences animals beyond their natural inclination.
I have seen what sickening things careless, greedy business owners can do. As a result I cannot help but think that the very act of caging animals for entertainment and putting them on display is far from honourable and humane, and a long stretch from being natural.
I am thankful now, with hindsight, that my mother never brought me to a zoo. If I desire to see animals I will instead watch the trees outside my window or take a long drive with Spouse and a camera. Photographs and memory are the only kind way to capture an animal.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:57 AM
Monday, April 21, 2008
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Spouse left the car behind this morning and walked over the pedestrian bridge that runs between his office and our home. A mighty river intersects the two areas.
If one times the stroll just perfectly, a train might slice its way along the bank of the river and under the bridge: one might feel a rattle and a rumble and the very bridge might seem precarious- imagination, of course, but far better entertainment than any television show, and it comes with fresh air.
I set out in the evening not to catch the motion of a passing train but to meet my Spouse on this, the first day that he had walked to work since living in Japan some years ago.
I had rather romantic visions of meeting him on the bridge midway along. It would be a symbol, I thought, of our commitment to frugality and a simple lifestyle, and, more urgently, a mark of 'meeting the environment half way.'
Spouse, however, was delayed in exiting the office by an enthusiastic and chatty colleague; I was almost to his workplace before I saw his friendly and faint figure in the distance.
It matters not: we left the car to idle for the day and it has stirred our vigour, made us feel younger, kinder, richer; sore feet as a reminder of one small action causing ripples.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:08 PM
Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall; A mother's secret hope outlives them all.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
After taking a long walk Saturday afternoon I had an ugly red blister on my foot, not on the sole but on the upper part uncommonly referred to as the 'dorsal.' I wore slippers all the afternoon and evening long, and for a good part of Sunday. The slippers seemed to irritate the problem but I never thought to walk barefoot.
When I glanced down I could see an angry welt and I mentioned it to my mother over the telephone yesterday as I made a cup of tea.
"Take off the slippers!" exclaimed Mater immediately.
It seemed that the injury needed exposure to air and so at her insistence I removed the shoes.
She tutted at me for my foolishness.
I made my tea slowly while standing on the cold kitchen floor, soaking up the warmth that flooded in the windows. I like strong black tea and I gave the teabag a very powerful squeeze before lifting it on the spoon and carrying it to the sink.
The teabag fell off the spoon and landed by my foot, narrowly missing the blister which would no doubt have been agitated since I also like my tea very hot.
Because I got a fright, my mother knew that something had very nearly happened. I told her that I nearly dropped the teabag onto my poor foot.
Even though I know my mother for years; even though I know of others' maters who behave erratically; even though I ought to be ready for anything that is said to me these days, I was not quite prepared for her wisdom:
"if you'd had your slippers on that wouldn't have happened. I always tell you not to go barefoot. Don't I always say it?"
I quite nearly dropped the entire cup of boiling tea in my consternation. I am awfully glad that she cares for me and I believe that she wants all things good for me, all of the time, sometimes contradicting her own self in her endeavours.
Such is a mother, and always will be.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:26 AM
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine, were taken away.
-Anaxagoras, Greek philosopher, ca. 500 BC - 428 BC
This is my side of the room, I say
when I am barely four feet high
but already territorial.
This is my side. I draw the line
with a piece of chalk;
my sibling now trapped
on his side of the shared bedroom-
the side, of course, that has no door.
How will I get out? he cries.
That is not my concern:
this is my side, I claimed it
and you cannot cross.
A piece of chalk makes it mine
your toe must not traverse my border
under any circumstances.
However, you can pay a toll
if you use my door
and cross the chalk line.
And you, my sibling says,
pay such a fine to me
for use of my quarters.
I sneer. I find that funny.
Why on earth would I
be concerned with your area
when I have drawn a chalk line
and affirmed my own?
I am content here.
But my side has the window,
my sibling declares.
Perhaps you want to see outside?
I snort and smirk.
This is a fine stretch of space
I need no window on the world.
What can the window show me
that I cannot see here
in my own chalk-marked plot?
Your side is inferior, I say,
but if I desired it
I could claim that just as easily.
And it continues with me thinking
that my plot is all I need.
I shall guard my place forever.
A voice booms from below,
shattering every illusion
reducing my reasoning to stupid splinters
DINNER, Mother cries.
Sibling runs across my patch,
I stand in a puddle of melted logic.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:27 AM
Saturday, April 19, 2008
"The family - that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."
I sang to my mother over the telephone the other night just as she was climbing into bed. She has had to take some time off work and the lack of a routine has made her more tense.
Apparently, without meaning to, or expecting to, I soothed her so much that she had a lovely night's sleep following the impromptu recital. I have nothing that resembles a singing voice of any sort, so I was surprised by her revelation.
I was given credit for singing a lullaby but I hardly recall what I sang. Still, Mater insisted that it was calming.
Last evening she brought the subject up again and sang my praises, so to speak.
"Well," I volunteered, "would you like me to sing again tonight?"
The reply came immediately:
"No. Just once was good."
For a brief time I thought I was my mother's cure for insomnia. I was suddenly left uncertain of the role of my voice in my mother's nocturnal world.
Some things, perhaps, are better left unsung.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:07 AM
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
It seems that I have hardly drawn a breath since everything was snow-covered and I could imagine nothing else.
I could conclude, in those days, that neighbours had come and gone- and who, for one of them used a walking stick that trailed clues like breadcrumbs. I remember minute tracks of a bird; watching a rabbit that flung soft snow in his haste to get to where he was going. I remember standing by our car and being astounded as the snow covered me up to my knees.
We could never plan any part of the future because for all we knew the next week would be blanketed too, and the one after that. We lived from day to day on borrowed films, our sagging shelves of books, new recipes.
Today I can feel the heat, see the sun streaming in through opened windows. The street outside our door is vibrant once again with the varied passing music of different kinds of people.
Everything is perfect.
Yet for all that, there is a deepening sense of loss that I cannot shake. Those months, cold and bleak and silent as they were, were my months, a significant portion of my time considering the utter briefness of life.
The act of moving on into a new era is always filled with trepidation and wariness of the unknown. The first time in a year that one can go for a walk, live without indoor heat and can have sunlight in the evening is indeed a new phase. Dazzling days, not cloudy ones; green instead of white, those are the signs that something important has been left behind.
As my Spouse and I pack up our blankets, our portable heater and numerous other signs of Winter, we do not know at all if we will use them again in this apartment. That makes me pause ever so slightly in my haste to banish the evidence of the coldest and cruelest months I have ever experienced.
I think about what I might have learned, and achieved, and what I made of that time; and I think that even the wet snow and the stinging wind just might, one day when I least expect it, become part of my wistful nostalgia.
In the meantime, of course, I will happily attempt to adjust to temperatures that are a full eighty degrees higher than they were two months ago.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:03 AM
Friday, April 18, 2008
"Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats."
When my cousin visited America last October, he was making a very special trip. He had always wanted to see the country and yet had never done so. He made jokes in the time leading up to his adventure about long ago when travellers to the country swore that the streets were all paved with gold.
On the journey from the airport, too, there was much talk of 'striking it rich.'
As he was about to enter our apartment and his first American home, he was dazzled by the trees, the traffic and the big sky. My cousin stooped to pick up a bright penny from the ground.
"A lucky penny," said he. "They were right about the gold." He put the penny in his pocket and promised never to spend or lose it.
The truth is in the finding, and in the attitude.
Attitude is also the reason why today, on his 68th birthday, he still feels like a teenager.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:33 AM
Thursday, April 17, 2008
"Hope is patience with the lamp lit."
-Tertullian, c. 160 - c. 225
One day two years ago in Ireland I was driving along a narrow dirt road with my brother and his significant other. We were in a desolate area. There were no houses in a five mile radius and it was as calm as I have ever witnessed the countryside.
As we turned a bend, we had to halt the car suddenly to avoid hitting the billy goat that was blocking our path.
He was clearly lost, and very desperate.
Every few moments he would cry out and dance and clatter from one side of the lane to the other, searching for the gap in the hedge that he had broken through from. He had escaped and was finding, perhaps, that he preferred his old life.
We rolled down the windows, and waited patiently in the warm sunshine of a July afternoon.
Then, between the bleats, we heard another voice.
For every cry of his there was an answering lady goat in a field. She was trying to let him know her position and he was doing his best to follow directions.
I'm in here!
I can't find you!
I'm in here!
He was struggling to follow her voice and she kept crying so that he might eventually locate the source. The poor little fellow could not even remember which side of the road he had stepped out from.
I remember that the trees were almost bursting with the sort of green that no photograph or painting could ever quite capture. Everything was still and silent except for the blur of white that flashed before us and for the determined cries that broke the blue-sky afternoon.
He stuck his gnarled and knobby head into each thorny nook in the faint hope that some familiar leaf or stick might help him to recollect.
We could all see him considering that he might never get back to his loved one; he was filled with anguish and panic but they never broke the spell of communication. They talked back and forth constantly to each other until her voice grew louder to his ears and, purely from the magic of sound, he was able at last to rediscover that elusive break in the hedge, push his hairy self through and return to his friend.
As we rolled slowly onward we heard the distinctive ring of one more nagging bleat from the lady who was no doubt berating the wayward chap for going away in the first place.
We went on our way but did not forget.
In a manner of speaking, forever remembering the poignant scene keeps us, somehow, on that crumbly road forever watching two individuals refuse to give up on each other.
I consider it a fine place to remain in.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
"Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes."
Spouse is away. There was a time, and it seems now to belong to another life, that I could join him on such excursions.
When we lived in California the majority of Spouse's travels revolved around San Francisco Bay Area, and instead of flying we could drive- I could join in and get away for a few days.
It feels odd to speak of escaping from that home we had in our little town; now there are days when I would give anything to be back there, using my feet to get from one thrift store to another, from the library to the post office, from my college to where a friend might be.
Anyhow, we did wander away at times and I savoured every moment of those visits. My Spouse had a generous and understanding boss at the time and it was perfectly acceptable for me to accompany Spouse, stay in the luxurious hotels and eat dinner at sumptuous restaurants.
As for particular restaurants we frequented, I will not speak of Banana Leaf at this time; the slightest push and nostalgia might overwhelm me.
One such occasion saw us staying in a hotel seventeen floors tall, on the fourteenth of which we stayed.
I spent countless hours riding the elevator to the very top, feeling dizzy and descending again only to attempt the exhilarating heights once more.
I watched television; I watched a housekeeper clean our room and felt that I must surely be part of a television show to be experiencing such a surreal moment.
I lounged in the lobby, watched travellers coming and going and wondered where in the world they had come from, and why.
Spouse suggested one afternoon that I take a bus around San Francisco and have an exploratory day. Of course for that I needed small change which I did not have but Spouse assured me, before he left for the day to attend his meetings, that I ought to ask the concierge at the reception desk and that they would be familiar with hotel guests asking for bank notes to be broken into smaller currency.
I stepped up to the gleaming and polished desk, behind which was a suited and grave hotel employee.
I cleared my throat. Speaking to people is one of my weaker points and in a glamorous hotel as that was, I felt like a tiny mouse. I grasped a twenty dollar bill tightly in my hand.
"Excuse me," I said in my most nonchalant and least intimidated voice, determined to give the fellow the impression that I knew all about hotels and was really quite bored with them,
"do you have some spare change?"
It is said, about words, that once spoken they are scattered like fine grains of sand and cannot be retracted. I sensed immediately that my question was one more likely to be asked by impoverished homeless persons and not esteemed hotel guests, and for that I inwardly cringed.
It was my good fortune that the concierge was familiar with guests of all types and he was possessed, at least, of a sensible inner translator. He sorted the matter without any fuss and I was able to go on my way, a suddenly humbled tourist on the streets of San Francisco. Yet, I cannot forget what I said.
My self respect will never let me.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:42 AM
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
"I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet."
-Lone Watie, from 'The Outlaw Josey Wales.'
We currently have that particular Clint Eastwood film checked out of our local library; while I am not in the habit of watching films by myself- it feels hollow without Spouse's company- I did, in fact, watch that in its entirety on Sunday afternoon.
I buried myself deep into a heavy blanket on the couch and forgot for two hours that the house was otherwise empty.
It was visually magnificent; the horses glistened and gleamed, Eastwood's character dodged his determined enemies for as long as he could, and the rugged scenery invigorated my heartache for the West.
When I watch a film with my Spouse, we judge its worth by the pauses we make. If we suspend the DVD more than twice to discuss the content then it ranks high in our estimation. If Spouse stops only to eat a little food, the film perhaps will not be viewed a second time.
Spouse, who has perpetual control of the remote, usually instigates the pauses although a thought might strike me and I urge him to hold the picture while I muse upon my idea.
We might reflect upon the fact that the main character is a true vision of nobility and we lament that we meet so few people who live up to that;
we might stop to talk about a childhood memory suddenly evoked by a watermelon or mango on the screen or by some children enjoying the endless and lush green days of youth;
there again we might chance to comment on the peculiar neighbours a certain character has, be they good or bad, and what we would do in that situation;
most recently we watched some children debate what to do with a bag of stolen money they found, and of course that opened the floodgates of discussion for us;
a sundrenched field or even a rain sodden road might cause us to wish to relocate to the place on the screen- we are susceptible and open to new possibilities and cannot view the setting of a beautiful movie without at least considering the fact that we might like to live there.
In short, we pause movies to talk about what is wrong with the world, what is right with it, and what we could do to earn peaceful happiness in this life. The pausing of the screen is not everybody's cup of tea, so to speak, but we do it because it gives us opportunity to make more than entertainment out of a moving picture.
"All I have is a piece of hard rock candy. But it's not for eatin.' It's just for lookin' through."
-When Lone Watie declared that to be the only food he had, I imagine my Spouse would have a word or two to say.
When we watch it together, I suspect, given the stunning, almost familiar landscapes, the absence of superfluous conversation and the deep wish for an end to war and hatred that lies at the very heart of 'The Outlaw Josey Wales,' that my Spouse's finger will hover on the pause button for the duration of the film.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:56 AM
Monday, April 14, 2008
"It is always the simple that produces the marvelous."
-Amelia E. Barr
I spent four hours in Barnes and Noble the other afternoon. I purchased nothing, and enjoyed the occasion particularly for the fact that I sat quietly and wrote my thoughts ensconced in a fresh environment. I do not at all like the taste of coffee but the pervading scent pleases me and I passed the time in the cafeteria watching other customers and garnering fresh ideas.
We spent ten minutes in our local library on Saturday afternoon. Half of that was spent rooting through the shelf of books designated for sale.
I unearthed 'What Have You Lost?' an anthology of poetry edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, whose words I greatly admire and whose books are precious in both the hard-to-find sense as well as in their content.
Shortly after that discovery, 'Under the Greenwood Tree,' one of the few Thomas Hardy books I do not have, came tumbling out into my hands.
They each cost fifty cents.
From 'Autumn Quince' by Jane Hirshfield; found in 'What Have You Lost?'
How sad they are,
they promises we never return to.
Here, the opening line of 'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy:
To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.
Ten minutes, one dollar, two volumes to gladden my heart and lighten my step as Spouse and I later walked to the nearby park for the first time in four months. The delightful pleasure extended its arms far beyond the brief moments of seeking and finding and buying, which is, for me, what book hunting, or any sort of shopping, should be all about.
I could never, never have had that same sort of joy in a new bookstore no matter how much money jingled in my pockets or how fat my wallet was.
"The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks."
My Spouse has jetted off once again and I am alone. Yet, not quite.
Some dozen onion bulbs and a cactus, newly embedded in soil, are mine to tend for this next week. We planted them the evening before last and I am fearful already.
I do not have the nimble grace that my Spouse is possessed of; doubtless he could plant a rock and a house would grow.
I am bereft of power to coax leaves into life; they watch me from their corner, silently mindful of their surrogate guardian. I very nearly suggested that Spouse bring them to Texas. Surely, I thought, they would find better refuge squatting in a suitcase than any time in my company?
I eye them now; they stretch away from me toward the window, the sunlight and the direction in which my Spouse went.
Six minutes after Spouse gently folded dirt over the precious food-to-be and the cactus, he returned to the room to see if anything marvellous had transpired. How charming and childlike and hopeful to imagine that mere seconds could magically see onion bulbs growing and changing- and pessimistic and self deprecating, at the other end of the spectrum, to think that the same length of time could undo them.
I should have hope that the wild things know what to do beyond anything that my hands could assist with.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:33 AM
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.
-From "To a Butterfly" by William Wordsworth
My mother used to collect me after school; it was rarely uneventful. We had our puerile games.
Her favourite was Last One Out of the Car; the moment that the car would come to a halt in our driveway we would scramble for our respective doorhandles and attempt to leave the other far behind.
Our garden gate had a rusted, slippery slimy latch and while one could get inside with just a push and without touching it, the gate had to be bolted to prevent our dogs from getting out. Therefore the most efficient way to avoid the unpleasantness was to have somebody enter the gate after you.
I was lacking in agility most times due to the weight and bulk of my schoolbag. Mater usually won except when she had her own items to carry.
One afternoon we were driving along home as usual and I distinctly felt a certain tension in the air. Mater was planning something, but I could not fathom at all what it was. Probably, knowing her, she had been plotting it all the afternoon long.
I gathered my bag and jacket, adjusted myself so that I could get out quickly, and hoped for the best.
And then, instead of going headfirst, my mother drove the car backwards into our driveway, at an angle. She fixed it so that the passenger side was against a stone wall with about an inch to spare. Laughing victoriously, she unclipped her seatbelt, wished me the best of luck, and ran off.
I had to clamber over my own seat as well as hers in order to exit the car, dragging my burdensome satchel with me.
It was a fine, swift bit of maneuvering. She played dirty that day, and won, and I retired, vowing never to play again.
That is, until I have my own car and the roles are reversed.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:41 AM
Saturday, April 12, 2008
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Spouse and I once visited my cousin while we were travelling in Ireland. We reached her home late because I was rather unfamiliar with the route. As we were approaching I took a minute to call my mother and ask her to find a Bed and Breakfast for us in my cousin's locality.
There was no room in my cousin's house for two late stragglers to spend the night, and we had arrived much later than planned- we had initially thought we might go back home to my mother afterward.
I had scant few minutes to spare on my cell phone and anyhow did not have access to names and numbers of such places so my mother agreed to sort the matter while we met with my cousin.
So, following a pleasant visit complete with tea, tales of my woeful navigation skills and shared childhood memories- my cousin and I are the same age- we said that we ought to be leaving.
My cousin asked where we might stay; I then got a call from my mother, who told me that she had spoken to a nice woman and that it was all arranged: we were to go to a certain house down the road.
My cousin would no doubt be able to guide us. My mother had noted down all the information we needed, including telephone number and street address. I suggested that she keep it close to hand and that we would call her.
My cousin agreed to accompany us to the Bed and Breakfast, where we would deposit our bags, and then proceed to a pub for more catching up.
As we drove, I told my cousin that she ought to navigate to the Bed and Breakfast as she knew the area well.
I dialled my mother's number and handed the phone to my cousin in the back seat.
"You talk to her," said I. "She'll give you directions."
I was a little taken aback, then, when my cousin accepted the phone and began speaking in a polite and graciously dainty voice, one which I had never heard her use in all my life.
She was quite the business woman, it seemed. She was clearly attempting to impress the person on the other end with her refined social skills.
"Helloooo, this is So and so-; and I was wondering if you could please tell us how to reach your home? We are at this moment in front of the church and near the school and around the corner from the pub."
Oh, what a conspicuously distinguished telephone manner she displayed.
I knew right then what had happened but it was too late. There was a very long silence.
The next thing I knew, my cousin was crying my mother's name into the telephone. She was livid. She flung the thing back at me.
"I thought it was the Bed and Breakfast lady I was talking to, not my aunt!"
My cousin presumed that I had dialled the lady's number, when in fact I had called the only other person who knew the details- which just happened to be my mother. I was hardly going to call a complete stranger at that time of night and ask for directions to the house. It was a perfectly ordinary thing, therefore, for me to call my mother instead, but my cousin absolutely misunderstood and had inadvertently put on a lovely show for her aunt, who was quite doubled up with laughter on the other end.
I suppose, upon thinking it over, that we do all have both a 'telephone voice'- one we use exclusively for people we are not very familiar with and who we rightfully wish to impress- and our 'everyday voice.' But how funny when the two worlds collide and we mistake one for the other.
I still have enormous trouble looking my dear delightful cousin in the eye.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:49 AM
Friday, April 11, 2008
"Beware so long as you live, of judging men by their outward appearance."
-Jean de La Fontaine
It began with a dirty glass. Upturned and encrusted with the pale remains of a milky drink, it greeted us last afternoon when we were led to a corner table.
Spouse and I had chosen to visit an Indian restaurant for lunch, after which he planned to leave me at Barnes and Noble for a few hours. We cannot afford the books there- a copy of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' bore the baffling price tag of 40 dollars- but I enjoy browsing, collecting titles and often sitting and writing my own thoughts for a time.
We noted the dirty glass with uneasy horror and wondered what sort of place we had stepped into. Spouse was on a break from work and there was absolutely no time left to seek out another restaurant.
We had no choice but to point at the glass as the waiter set napkins before us. He silently collected the offending item, with, I thought I sensed, a tinge of melancholy, and glided away to let us enjoy the buffet. We decided to dismiss the glass from our minds and concentrate on the food.
The food was satisfying; I cannot say that it was particularly special but the meal was pleasant enough. We entered the restaurant shortly before noon, and expected the place to fill up rapidly. Two customers in before us ate and talked loudly at a corner table; otherwise Spouse and I were alone. Our waiter dashed in and out of the kitchen from time to time and filled up the pots with more appetising concoctions.
He refilled our water glasses. I said "thank you" and he responded with "you're welcome," which, sad to say, is uncommon in our area.
At some point in the time we sat there we began to notice things.
No other customers had come by and were not likely to do so, given the late hour.
The waiter appeared to be the only member of staff; perhaps as well as leading us to our table he was also the chef. He took our credit card with the briefest smiles when our meal was finished; he was the cashier, too.
That was all very telling. With no customers at all he probably could not pay for any staff and was forced to do the work of several people, including, I presume, dishwasher.
Suddenly a dirty glass became more than an ugly object; the fellow's sadness was not our imagination. He was attempting to do what he could with all that he had yet his inherent good manners remained a pivotal part of his day.
It is heartbreaking to think that his business might be collapsing, that he would have to dispose of the food he cooked with his own hands, that an otherwise perfectly fine place should be the first to disintegrate during an economic downturn.
We both felt badly for him and his livelihood, and were glad that we had not walked out after judging a restaurant by a single unwashed glass.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:06 AM
Thursday, April 10, 2008
"I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you."
At the age of sixteen I wrote a poem about genealogical roots and family trees. I submitted it to my local newspaper, where it was swiftly rejected.
I had expected as much. It is still today the sort of newspaper that one has to know the proper Somebody in order to have any piece published. Failing that, however, if the week happens to be a slow one regarding news, there just might be a possibility of temporary fame.
One afternoon at school I was informed that a lady was coming from the newspaper to speak to me. Apparently she wished to know the background of the poem.
In the 1800s in Ireland, a particularly troubled time, a relative of mine had left her home at the age of nineteen for a better life in America. Communication at the time was sparse, expensive and uncommon. Apart from a few brief letters indicating that she had reached the new shores and was getting along, she was not heard from again.
She passed her story to her own offspring and certain names burned brightly so that another relative, during the 1970s, decided to find her family in Ireland, and wonderful connections were made that remain to this day. She put a great deal of effort into seeking out the right people; she spent countless hours poring over her grandmother's papers and piecing together what she could. She wrote to the newspaper I mentioned, posted an advert for information about the names she knew. It was ultimately successful.
She went with her mother to Ireland as soon as they had made contact with the family over there; her mother was in her eighties at the time and it meant the world to both of them to reach the homeland.
I knew that she would be pleased to see the story in a local newspaper so I was delighted to be a part of the event.
The journalist spent about one hour with me; I got to miss some classes and be interviewed. It was quite a thrilling day, especially when she took my photograph. The journalist was most excited by the fact that their newspaper had been the medium that solved the mystery.
About a week afterward I found my face in the newspaper.
The headline was dreadful, as was the ensuing story.
It told that I had, by my own hand and solely, dug up all the information and put two pieces of the family tree back together. Apparently I had done the research; there was no mention of my relative or her hard work or the fact that I was not born when she had first visited Ireland.
I was devastated, especially given that I had already written and informed my relative that her story- hers- would be in the newspaper.
I had to, of course, write to my relative once again and explain that the journalist had got it all wrong, all horribly wrong.
She got a laugh out of it because she understood the very nature of newspapers; but I was disheartened by the journalist's lies, by the trickery and deception. Had she just considered the matter, she could have had a much finer story on her hands: meeting, perhaps, with the person who did make all the discoveries. She might even have had to make a trip to America to do so.
Why lie when the truth might be even more productive and worthy?
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:19 AM
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
"Every patient is a doctor after his cure."
One evening years ago when I first knew my Spouse, I suddenly developed a dreadful case of the hiccups. The problem did not cease when I expected it to, that is to say, after a few minutes. It seemed to go on interminably and I grew weary. But Spouse had a cure, a magic cure that could not fail.
I was ordered to stand alone in a dark bathroom, gaze in front of a mirror, and count out loud for two whole minutes.
I have a fear of the darkness; mirrors do not appeal much; bathrooms are hardly conducive to pleasant times. I took my Spouse's advice, gritted my teeth and stepped inside.
I loathed counting in that gloom, with only my eerie reflection staring back at me. It was a terribly long two minutes and I emerged from the bathroom quite furious.
It had not worked at all. I was yet hiccuping and worse, had wasted precious moments being scared in a strange and unfamiliar house.
I marched to the living room to demand my proverbial money back from the fellow who had claimed to know the remedy.
Just before I turned the corner, Spouse leaped out like a madman and bellowed at me.
My hiccups disappeared without a trace.
Spouse's task was complete; I had assumed the wrong element to be the intended cure.
I am forever declaring it: things are not always what they seem.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:59 AM
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
"What is human life? The first third a good time; the rest remembering about it."
Spouse dropped the date of the month into our conversation today. It happened quite casually, without fanfare or purpose beyond emphasising an upcoming business trip.
I was forced to interrupt my Spouse.
"It's our wedding anniversary today," said I, as stunned to say it as Spouse was to hear it.
"It is?" came the response.
I could scarcely believe it myself.
Two years since that glorious Spring day when the only bit of blue in the sky was above our wedding party, all else cloudy and careless.
Two years since a tightly-knit group of people got together for food and drink and laughter.
It just happens, too, to be the first one we get to celebrate together- if only we manage to remember it in time. We missed our first one because I was scrambling to acquire the legal paperwork to do so.
We both consider it not the end of the world that we neglected to recall the date. There are more urgent and necessary things to either appreciate or worry about.
There is the act of remembering, and then there are memories.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:18 AM
"One great, strong, unselfish soul in every community could actually redeem the world."
Spouse and I fondly name our contraptions and utensils. Clothing, furniture and household objects have, over the course of some years, been garnished with familiar and convenient titles. I will speak of only one at this time.
A perfectly fine scissors sits in a kitchen drawer; the arty sort that is used for decorative purposes, that cuts not straight but curly. Let the scissors sit there for a moment; we will return to them.
Last Summer we attended a dear friend's wedding in Maine. Her house at that time had to accommodate eight people, three of them from Germany. The oldest of all, Uncle Heinz, as he was affectionately known, was an extended member of the family. The fellow was reserved and polite at all times. He spoke little English but he indicated as best he could that he was enjoying his visit immensely.
It always strikes my mind just how much meaning can be conveyed without the use of verbal language. It made us long to all speak in one tongue so that we could converse with him and hear some of his stories.
He was, as I said, unassuming and respectful- overly so at times. He was reluctant to ask for anything extra, already feeling as though he were the equivalent of a third wheel in a large house at a tumultuous time.
He wanted to cut his fingernails in preparation for the wedding. He was too shy, too obliging to ask the busy family members for anything with which to perform the operation.
We had, the day previously, been using a special scissors to cut some papers for decoration, to be placed on each table at the wedding reception. That scissors had no straight blade, but one with some odd shapes along its edge to provide curious designs on paper.
Uncle Heinz was discovered just in time, attempting to pair his nails with the curly scissors. Thankfully some good soul rescued him and supplied him with the right tool but several things have emerged from that experience.
We have not yet been able to suppress mirth when imagining poor Uncle Heinz with wavy fingernails at the wedding.
We cannot help but admire the nobility of a man that understood the bride's stress, and wanted to be as little trouble as possible to anybody. He, however, left a fine impression upon all of us.
And lastly, when Spouse and I ask the other to fetch the Uncle Heinz scissors, we know just what it means.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:58 AM
Monday, April 7, 2008
"It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it."
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman was recognised in 2006 as having solved the century-old Poincaré Conjecture. I could not but notice that each reference to the fellow spoke of his appearance and his societal habits. Particularly irksome and beyond most people's comprehension was the fact that Perelman declined to accept a prestigious award.
Considering the significance of his discovery, I considered his personal matters to be trivial, and soon afterward wrote a poem that resonated about solitude, and about accepting people for who they are and what they contribute.
Years to solve the problem Poincare posed:
And the first things that the newsmen noted
(Never being ones to sugar coat it)
Was his being a Bearded Russian Recluse
Who lived jobless with his mother
avoided limelight, praise, and being quoted;
had the gall, this Bearded Mystery,
The nerve, audacity and discretion
To shy away from worldly glory; politely trying
To shun the fruits of his profession.
Not the first in Mathematical History
To retreat from hawkish human prying.
Years to solve the problem Poincare posed
And I'm still uncertain about Perelman's solution,
Papers mentioning little beyond his bearded self.
The way they prattle on, I just can't shake the notion
That his beard had something to do with solving it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:57 AM
"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were and I say, 'Why not?'"
-George Bernard Shaw
On the way back from a super day out in San Francisco with a friend a few years ago, we all three were beginning to grow tired as the night wore on and we were still many miles from home.
Spouse, at the helm, was involuntarily closing his eyes every few moments. He is an excellent driver but I was quite concerned, especially given that I could hardly shake him awake myself when I too kept nodding off.
Our friend in the back seat also was exhausted. We all determined the distance to be too much without respite and so we drove into the parking lot of a large hotel.
Spouse turned off the engine, reclined the seat and prepared to sleep. Our friend stretched out on the back seat. Spouse being the driver, and the friend being our guest, it was naturally left to me to protect us all. It was an unknown area and at least one of us had to sit up, stay awake and keep alert for passers-by, security guards and whatnot.
So I, the guardian of midnight, took my position with open eyes and steady, watchful gaze. In approximately three seconds there was nothing but silence and I was the only one awake.
It was after midnight in mid October. The ground was wet, the world was still. The minutes ground by ever so slowly. I fought sleep and kept danger at bay.
Then I saw it. A sudden movement so slight that I at first thought it to be a tumbling leaf in an unexpected gust. I looked quickly and caught a glimpse: it was a squirrel-like creature by the wheel of a nearby parked car. In another moment it took a glide of a sort and was by another car. The animal was transparent. I could see through it quite easily and it appeared to be moving like a gelatine substance- with a quiver and not one bit like a whole, real animal. I was not frightened but thunderstruck of course; by the time I collected my thoughts it had weaved its way past the cars, all the while moving with the same trembling leap, and had vanished.
Spouse woke up a few seconds later as did our friend. Spouse stretched.
"I saw a transparent squirrel," I said without intonation. I heard my own words and struggled to comprehend how another could believe what I had seen.
They were both rather nice about the matter but no doubt they were glad that I was not the designated driver.
Nevertheless I know what I saw. I am not prone to imaginative flights of fancy and I positively do not conjure up impossible creatures while trying to stave off sleep. I know what I saw even if I could articulate a description. It is often that way with a novel element: much as it befuddles a person to verbalise colour to a blind man, it is next to impossible to find words for something we never comprehended, were told about, or saw a picture of.
One humid evening sometime hence, another soul may see it too and I shall then be redeemed.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:52 AM
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
"Pooh!" he whispered.
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you."
-A. A. Milne
During the 1950s and 1960s in England, the piano comedy duo of Flanders and Swann brought hearty laughter and pause for thought to many listeners. A good deal of their act was given to lively talk and banter between the two friends. Their witty, tongue-in-cheek routines touched on everything from talking animals to the merits of bath time.
In one such piece that I play often, they discuss the lack of a 'proper' national song for England. They bemoan an understated line in 'Jerusalem,' a popular and patriotic tune sung often:
"'There'll always be an England.'
Well, that's not saying much, is it? I mean, there'll always be a North Pole- if some dangerous clown doesn't go and melt it."
How curious that Flanders and Swann chose the most steadfast, safe and reliable thing they could imagine, to emphasise their point. They used the North Pole's permanence as an example of a mundane stating of the obvious. Now, not so many years later, that is coming undone, slowly, frighteningly. Our beloved and vital Polar world, that constant staple of our general knowledge, that beacon of enduring assurance, is melting at the seams and obliterating all that we thought we knew and could forever rely on.
The North Star, the rising sun, the tides: we use these as compass for our daily lives. When Flanders and Swann sang their little ditty, they could not have foreseen that the North Pole would come to so much harm and threaten the only world we have.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:42 AM
Saturday, April 5, 2008
"It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere."
My relative claims that, should he win some millions of dollars, his life would not change one whit. We looked closely at his life and determined he was telling the truth. He has everything that one could possibly want, including the ability to stun his guests by doing push-ups on the living room floor at the age of 77.
If he wishes to eat vegetables with his dinner he steps into the garden and pulls up garlic, onions, beans. He wakes regularly at 3 AM and goes for a walk before returning for a hearty, greasy breakfast, the like of which Spouse and I can only eat but once a year.
Spending time in the company of a person who wants to change nothing, who asserts with honesty that he has all he needs- that is a deeply satisfying environment to step into.
Spouse and I might only change one or two things: we would like to buy a cow, a friendly and large bovine such as that which we saw while driving by the Kentucky border, and perhaps a chicken or two, and a green field to keep them all in.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:29 AM
Friday, April 4, 2008
"If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another."
We have spent the past few days with a man who plants flowers while on his fishing expeditions.
I so admire the ideology that takes some, leaves a little and makes a difference.
Mother Nature will be all the better for such actions.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:24 AM
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
We returned from our visit to Tennessee to hear the news that my brother, who lives in Ireland, had a bit of good luck during the time.
He had a van which he was anxious to sell quickly after he purchased a car. It boasted a very flat tyre, an almost dead battery and a suspension part that poked its way through the floor of the van and made driving a potentially deadly endeavour.
Being rid of it would be a blessing but difficult to negotiate given the fact that it would cost money- more than the van was worth- to dispose of the vehicle.
Imagine, then, my brother's amazement upon emerging from the flat to find a rather empty parking space where the van ought to have been.
Somebody saw fit to steal the thing; goodness knows how far they travelled with the rickety and half-broken van but nevertheless it is gone, at no cost to my sibling except the money he paid for the vehicle which had anyhow long since been spent and given up.
He mused that had they just knocked on his door they might have had the van for free, including the correct paperwork.
If only all things could be similarly turned around so that the silver lining becomes clear!
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:23 AM