Thursday, July 31, 2008
"Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights."
-Pauline R. Kezer
Spouse and I went out for breakfast this morning in Cambridge- not typical of us in the slightest. In fact, in recollecting, I remarked that the last time we ate breakfast together in a restaurant was three and a half years ago, with Mater in Las Vegas.
I well remember: Mater's perpetual and inexplicable insistence on referring to our hotel as the Tropicano when it was in fact the Tropicana; the vast range of food at the buffet and the priceless expression on Mater's face as she perceived the latter.
I digress. I was reflecting on the unexpected breakfast experience of this morning. Pondering, I was, on a delightful little cafe right across the street from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; a tidy corner which had the air of being a favourite haunt of students, and the sort of place that one would expect to overhear a good deal of serious discussion taking place.
I was served two eggs, sunny-side-up and perfect, two pieces of buttered toast, delicious potatoes and a bottle of orange juice.
I quite like breakfast at home, with my hot, sugary tea and my familiar cup with its design of an elephant, and perhaps a bagel or some homemade bread. In truth I have not missed dining out for breakfast because I would rather wake up slowly and in my own fashion, and eat at my own pace in my own kitchen.
Still, once in a while, a change is the very best medicine, and the most overlooked. After all, I only have to think of Mater, of how happy she was to explore a breakfast buffet for the first time in her life, to see what wonders change can do for the soul.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:19 PM
"A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs - jolted by every pebble in the road."
-Henry Ward Beecher
Spouse and I stepped this morning across some graffiti scrawled faintly onto the footpath in Cambridge. The statement was simple and blunt: 'GO AWAY.' At first, being a tourist to the area, I was inclined to take offence.
However, upon reflection and with hindsight, I choose to take it as a rather apt icon of my week thus far. I am away, thank you, and am enjoying it immensely. Everyone ought to Go Away. I highly recommend it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:12 PM
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
“There is no delight in owning anything unshared.”
Mater promised to call and let me momentarily listen in on the Tom Waits concert she will attend tomorrow night.
I think I can picture the scene as it will be: cell phone held high above the pattern of heads in the crowd, Mater wielding it like an urgent candle in the darkness, or a beacon to beam the crooner's voice all the way across the ocean so that I can share in my mother's noteworthy moment. I might be on the Subway train in Cambridge, or ambling along some street- and there Mater will be, the distance suddenly evaporating into the wind.
It is, as of now, only an intention and it might not, of course, work out, but just in case, I had better be wearing my sunhat, sunblock and sunglasses as advised regularly by my mother.
One can never be wholly free in a shrinking world- nor ever really alone.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:42 PM
"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Due to a very late dinner that Spouse is partaking of, and due to complete exhaustion following my latest excursion into Cambridge, I chose to remain at home on this day.
I had so much built up the butterfly flurry of excitement, that it- rather happily- drained me afterward of all my energy. I inhaled every second of yesterday's outing: all passers-by seemed friendly, and as happy as I was; I am certain that I could smell books and goodness and hopefulness on the breeze along with the scent of bakeries and restaurants with delicious-sounding menus.
Fully rejuvenated I am now; the streets of Cambridge will hardly know themselves tomorrow when my eager feet hit them once again.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:38 PM
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
“It is good to love the unknown.”
I waited long, so long, for this particular week and as I marched toward the thrift store, my strides seemed too short, the crowd was too condensed and I could not get there fast enough. Such was my anticipation, I thought the door handle would melt under my hand and disappear; I thought the book section would be vacant; I thought that I would never arrive.
Still, I got there: and the fact that I fled after ten minutes of browsing is perhaps testament to both the superior store I discovered just down the street as well as the fellow who offered me a chair.
Ah, the chair.
"Would you like this book?" I looked up, uncertain if the question was directed at me or at anybody in particular.
A rather ragged looking chap was pulling books from the shelves and showing them to me. "I wanted this, but you could have it if you like." I soon realised he was making the same offer to every customer within earshot.
Most were polite and declined the record player, the board game, the stack of books that he had put aside for himself but was willing to relinquish.
After a few minutes I observed that he was equipped with a hat bearing the word 'staff' and I was quite startled, as I presumed he had not fished the hat from the boxes of castoffs.
I skirted around the shelves, hoping to avoid eye contact and any more hopeless discussion. Every time he caught sight of another book he liked but was happy to let another person buy, he would come around to my side of the shelf and attempt to sell it to me, or whoever happened to be there.
I prefer to explore bookstores in relative peace and solitude, not looking up from the shelves until my excursion is complete. If a stranger ever struck up a conversation with me I would be delighted and it would not seem at all to be a distraction, but he was half mumbling his bargain suggestions in a manner that indicated- though I could not put my finger on precisely why- I had better be careful not to offend him.
I had to lie, I had to construct gigantic fabrications about my reading habits, and tell him I owned most of the books he was holding up. In truth I had not heard of many of the authors but each one looked less and less like my cup of tea.
Then the dishevelled fellow offered me a chair, insisting that it was no good to hurt my back while searching for books.
"I'll get you a chair," he said. "I work here. I'll have a chair for you."
I had waited twelve months for this very week, most of which, if I am honest, were spent in a monotonous sitting position, and I refused to sit still for another moment when I could be pleasantly rummaging.
Still, I found myself saying, "that would be nice. Thank you."
I supposed that I could sit for a minute or two and then inconspicuously stand up, move away from it and start digging again.
The chair, oddly enough, never materialised. I did agree to one being delivered post haste, but that member of staff immediately resumed the discussion about this book or that, and I quickly comprehended that the chair was not going to make an appearance, and that I ought to be moving along also.
In moving along I realised that it was a blessing in disguise; that my intended two hours in that store would have masked the exuberant spirit I stumbled upon later. I had a marvellous day to the point where I quite wore out my feet, and my eyes could take in no more.
That is all that can be said about it, about the chair that was not there, about the day without a chair, about the day bursting with so many other pleasant diversions, that the lack of a promised chair is but a brief afterthought.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 6:18 PM
Monday, July 28, 2008
"Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe."
For a whole twelve months I have been much looking forward to what, in my eyes, is the sum equivalent of a vacation.
Spouse is embarking on a week-long course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Just like last year, beginning from tomorrow, I will accompany him for the outing; the routine begins shortly after 5 AM and concludes late each evening.
While Spouse sits and experiences, on a short-term level, one of his lifelong ambitions, I myself will be strolling up and down the streets of Cambridge venturing into my favourite thrift stores, used book stores and preferred places to eat- all discovered last year, the memories still fine tuned and fresh.
As with the previous encounter I will be blessed with the option to sit for hours watching people in a cafeteria; I might stay one hour or four, might come and go as I please, back and forth to the stores like a happy squirrel in a tree. I intend to make the most of the brief and too transient occasion and I refuse to waste a minute of it. I will roam where I want to.
I will get an enormous amount of walking accomplished; the same, too, with writing, and I will find a treasure trove of stories in the faces, phrases and actions of strangers.
This is best- to know that Spouse will be immersed in what he loves most while I indulge in a change of scenery that brings with it the freedom to walk for hours and then write about it.
All signs are present that it will turn out to be a superb week.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 3:39 PM
Sunday, July 27, 2008
"The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings."
...thank goodness, I said, for second chances, but on occasion the second chance must be politely declined. It rained copious amounts last night and all the day long the sky was sullen and glum, the ground buried somewhere under the deep puddles.
Nevertheless, I amused myself by reminiscing about last year's festival: about the tram conductor who Spouse and I were absolutely certain was a flesh and blood version of Captain Haddock, the bearded, infamous comic book character; about the fact that it was our first venture into the town- nowadays we visit once a week on library errands; about our awe that the entire event was free, and that we had the opportunity to invest our time and delight in such a party.
This afternoon, as lightning cracked and the sky brooded I felt terribly sorry for the ones who had waited until Sunday to attend and found themselves unexpectedly drenched.
I suppose the music carried on, for it takes a good deal to quell the spirit of any festival, but Spouse and I were glad, anyhow, to have seen it all again so that the loss of our Sunday plan was not as sharp as it might have been.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:53 PM
Saturday, July 26, 2008
“Memory is the library of the mind.”
Today Spouse and I attended the opening of a two-day Folk Festival that takes place annually in our area. Musicians come from everywhere; they perform for free on stages established in various corners of the town. One can either roam about, explore the food and drift over to a chosen event- or remain lying on a rug or sunk into a chair under the trees.
The central area is large enough that several musicians play simultaneously on opposite ends of the town. One just has to choose their preferred act and then go to it. The only cost incurred is that of food, which exotically matches the varying cultural origins of the performers: Greek, French, Spanish- so much vibrant colours, flavours, aromas, and energetic, frenetic fiddling, banjo playing, piano-pounding.
It is all quite wonderful and we get two whole days in which to relish the world coming to our doorstep.
We brought our camera along this afternoon. One's camera, it is advised, ought to be given an outing once in a while for fresh air and whatnot.
At some point in the morning, either Spouse or I- it is difficult, at this time to recall precisely whom- made the definite decision that the camera's battery would be staying home to guard the house.
"Stay," said one of us directly and firmly to the battery: "we know you are vital; we know that the camera shell will be rendered useless without you; we are aware that the camera is burdensome at the best of times and even weightier when it serves no purpose; we will wish for your company on many instances during the course of this long-anticipated day- but you must sit and wait for us to return home."
So, the battery did just that. I rather think we might bring it with us tomorrow.
Thank goodness for second chances.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 5:14 PM
Friday, July 25, 2008
"Let a joy keep you. Reach out your hands and take it when it runs by."
There is a battle raging in the sky now: a ferocious storm has descended on us and unleashed a troubling amount of rain. The earth outside my window has turned to mud, slick and treacherous to the poor souls outside.
For comfort when alone, when the lights begin to flicker and blink and the doors rattle, I like to reach out for my books.
Even when electricity has been extinguished and I am in complete darkness, the feel of old, familiar pages puts me at instant ease. By my hand there is an old copy, dated 1926, of Carl Sandburg poems: its yellowed leaves smell of long-ago smoke.
I unearthed the book when I lived in California, when I frequented dimly-lit bookstores and my hunger for reading took precedence over all else.
I suspect that the treasured volume has weathered more storms than its benign appearance would imply. It could be that it was first brought home in happy hands to a humble house in which electricity was a concept for the wealthy, and candles, lanterns, wholesome sunlight were the unfailing tools of the book owner's day.
It was passed on, perhaps, to succeeding generations of readers, or else held hostage in a gloomy attic for half a century before a soul stumbled upon it.
Such books do not need the light of an electric bulb to inspire me. I know the words of Carl Sandburg with my eyes closed:
"It's going to come out all right- do you know?
The sun, the birds, the grass- they know.
They get along- and we'll get along."
The storm will shortly pass, as everything does. I am glad for my books, and for some hot tea and for the prevailing sense of history that puts all mundane worries into perspective.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:02 AM
Thursday, July 24, 2008
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
Closed, we have no power
-was the notice pasted to the door of the gym when Spouse made a visit this morning. Not one of the machines would work without electricity, of course.
Disappointed, Spouse had no option but to walk back to his car and drive home again. He could not help but notice other patrons doing the very same thing: finding the note, expressing dismay, turning for home.
One minor difference must be noted here between Spouse and his fellow gym-goers: they were, each and every one, nestled inside their cars. They had all driven to the main door, as close as humanly possible to the threshold of the building, read the sign with surprise and continued motoring. Indeed, there was a line of cars, a convoy of people who had intended to wait for the nearest space to become empty. Those were the same souls who would, I expect, park indoors right next to the treadmills and weight machines if given permission.
This was no doctor's surgery or emergency wing of a hospital- but a gym, for exercise and bodily fitness; they were not invalids. It was not evening time but a few minutes after 6:30 in the morning, when generally the most determined and routine-driven people will rise from their beds, shake the sleep from their faces and struggle to their workout.
The phrase 'what is the world coming to?' has, I know, been thrown about for quite a long time, and likely has been overused to the point of commonplace banality.
Still, I do believe that this morning's episode, witnessed by a lone pedestrian Spouse, demands that we ask such questions of ourselves.
What are we coming to?
Where are we going?
Can we walk there?
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:57 PM
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
"Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. Most things are judged by their jackets."
When I was sixteen I took some rather important exams at school; on the eve of the results I said to Mater that I wished to have my hair cut. The cut was to be as significant as the event that called for it: no here-and-there snips for me, but a serious shearing of hair.
At that time it was long enough to tumble down my back. I requested a clipping that would leave my hair at just above shoulder length.
Mater hesitated that evening, and she frowned, but bravely set to work.
I was full of optimism as I perched on a wooden chair in the warm kitchen, as the scent of dinner was fading away with evening.
We are still uncertain, so many years later, how Mater was able to bring my hair length to my earlobe with just two random slashes of the scissors. A jagged incision, at that, and one which I only discovered by looking into my mother's eyes. Those eyes could not hide the truth, certainly not when they were brimming with unshed water.
Chunks of my hair floated to the kitchen floor in exaggerated slow motion.
Mater had made some sort of ghastly mistake and left me stranded with a crooked edge of hair that was irreparable- at least before school the next morning. It was no ordinary school-day, either, but on the very occasion that I was to join a new class one week later than my classmates. All eyes would have been fixed on me anyway, an intruder striding awkwardly into a classroom full of people who had already assigned themselves companions for life.
My lack of decent hair- and self-awareness of such- would without doubt cement my status for the rest of the school year and quite likely beyond.
Mater wept then, and professed her deep regret at ever touching my head with a blade, and vowed never again to listen to me when I asked for a haircut.
I understood that she would have traded places gladly with me as I set off for school the next morning with dread in my heart, the artfully tucked-in wisps of hair betraying me in the cruel breeze.
I could hardly be angry at my mother.
If it were a kinder world, my hairstyle would not have mattered to my classmates, and therefore not to me either. Mater had tried her humble best, and I tried mine to remember this: people are more than their hair, more than their outward appearance. We too often turn away without scratching the surface of our fellow men, and so much potentiality drifts away like stray hairs on a breath of wind.
Indeed, there were lessons that night, for both Mater and I.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:17 PM
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
“We never understand how little we need in this world until we know the loss of it.”
-James M. Barrie
Some weeks ago Spouse was on a business trip and he telephoned home to access his voice messages.
He listened to a message from his sibling: the announcement was "I'm at the hospital. It's a boy."
Spouse was a little perplexed, having absolutely no recollection of being told the couple was expecting a second child, the first having been born less than two years ago.
Spouse was solemnly regretful that he had managed to miss the usual enthusiasm and anticipation that heralds the arrival of a child.
We both recovered from that element, however, as one does where children are concerned, and adjusted to the prospect of another nephew, another life in the world. I informed Mater and she was enormously pleased for people she had not ever met, in a part of the world she had not ventured to.
Spouse returned from his travels and promptly called his sibling. Alarm bells began to ring ominously when minutes passed and no mention at all was made of the child.
Conversation proceeded as normal but Spouse was concerned, confused and overwhelmed, and increasingly reluctant to instigate the topic. There seemed no reason for the subject of the baby to be omitted from general discussion.
At last, when the call concluded, Spouse went with trepidation to listen to the message again, wondering, worried, if he had missed something essential or perhaps even entirely dreamed the greeting.
No, it had not been a dream. It turned out, however, that in haste Spouse had listened to the wrong archive of messages: that declaration he heard was in fact nearly two years old.
It told Spouse of the birth of his sibling's first- and therefore only- child. There was no new baby boy, merely a recital of a message regarding the existing one.
What most struck Spouse and I, what halted us in our tracks, was the useless void left behind when the discovery had been made.
To listen to us talk, one would have suspected we had in fact long prepared for the new nephew, and not at all that it had really astonished us to hear of another baby in the family. Despite the relative speed with which the whole thing took place, we found ourselves feeling a little bit vacant when it was all over.
We had spent those fine few days thinking of a new child: whether he was hearty and healthy; who he would resemble; what great person he might be one day; and, rather whimsically, whether he might come to visit Spouse and I.
There was no new child, except in our minds- and temporarily at that- but when the misunderstanding was revealed and the sentiment pulled like a great rug from under us, it seemed to be a deep and significant loss that we could not fathom. It felt for all the world as though a nephew had been taken away, so strong were the sentiments we had of that new person.
Once imagined, we could not so easily dismiss our thoughts as a mere figment of error.
Ideas can be immeasurably potent, particularly when one gives those notions a face, a family and a future.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:16 AM
Monday, July 21, 2008
"There are people whose watch stops at a certain hour and who remain permanently at that age."
-Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve
My brother and I had designated code names, aliases for one another during our aforementioned water bottle battles and adventurous expeditions.
He was Scorpio. I was Jolly Roger.
I was Jolly Roger who placed cold food in a bag and stayed out all the day long helping Scorpio to dig up the treasure that, according to our map, was almost certainly buried in the long grass of the garden.
Of course we wrote the map ourselves, but that never once diluted the charm of possibility, not for Scorpio and Jolly Roger.
We had names, and we might do well to remember them even now.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:17 AM
Saturday, July 19, 2008
I'd give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life's decay,
To be once more a little child
For one bright summer day.
Saturdays in Summer are not the same now, without a green field and a sibling to run about the place with.
I spent time last evening with a child who had happy possession of a water pistol and it put me in mind of the crudely made weapons of my own childhood.
The very best implement was the cylindrical dish liquid bottle that Mater used, which never seemed to run dry soon enough for us, and for which my brother and I would on occasion grit our teeth and volunteer to do the dishes. That way we might gain privileged access to the last drop and thereby conquer the vessel for our own underhand ends: filling it to the top with water and chasing the unfortunate sibling for hours.
It seemed that whole years passed by while we waited with an eye on the remains of the dish liquid. Each day that dragged we requested Mater not to let the other get their hands on it first.
Such an item was exceedingly better than a typical water gun: its range, I seem to recall, was about six feet, quite a considerable distance given the enclosed space we played in. One could hardly run and hide in such territory.
It almost goes without saying that my spraying my brother with the water was not only fair but completely justified, and that he doing the same to me was not only unfair but a punishable offence.
The days are not the same as they were. Life moves on and one becomes, without being aware of it, the washer of dishes rather than the energetic youngster with their whole heart set on one plastic bottle.
Of course, one could always invite one's brother for an overseas visit and challenge him to a dish liquid bottle duel and a fierce battle of wits.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:44 AM
Friday, July 18, 2008
“It gets you nowhere if the other person's tail is only just in sight for the second half of the conversation.”
-Winnie the Pooh
Mater loves shopping, and she does it well. While I differ from her in that respect, I enjoy her happiness when she comes to visit, when she can browse new and exciting stores that she does not have in Ireland. It is always a treat to watch somebody so enthusiastic about anything.
She likes the clothes that she can buy here. She purchased a particular item of clothing last year during her trip that she considers better quality than what she could find at home.
The item's box bore the specific name and size of the garment; I advised her not to discard it- when she wanted another, I could take the information from her and simply buy another.
The inevitable happened last month and during a conversation Mater gently probed that she was ready for a new item.
"No problem," said I. "Tell me all the details and I'll go to the store."
Off went Mater to uproot the safely stored box. When she returned to the telephone I was surprised to find I could hardly make out a word she was saying. She was laughing so hard that she was struggling to catch her breath.
It turned out that she had been listening to me rather too well lately and that my attempts at frugality and space-saving were a stronger influence than even I had suspected.
Mater was thinking of me, and she presumed she was being efficient and careful when she chose not to keep the box and instead, artfully cut away the superfluous cardboard so that the needed information could be kept between the pages of a book.
"I'll be like my daughter," was the gleeful thought that flashed through her mind, so much have I spoken about keeping a clutter-free house.
She went too far, however, and in the end all that Mater was left with was an utterly useless picture of a beaming model- no name, no size, no product information.
Months had passed, and until I pressed her for detail Mater had not realised the error.
I do so appreciate when others take heed of my suggestions about economy of space. Being listened to is a delightful compliment even when it turns out the listener is drifting quite in the wrong direction.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:40 PM
Thursday, July 17, 2008
"Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath."
One must remain unruffled behind the wheel of a car, calm at all times no matter the situation. Quite like the duck, really, that paddles madly underneath the water but appears untroubled on the surface.
Spouse knows this innately and I am glad.
We once were driving near our neighbourhood in Texas, on a patch of highway that was at times slow, at times fast due to the never-ending construction that was in progress.
We might have started from home a little late because Spouse was munching on a sandwich.
Between the start-stop motion of the car, and the haste of other drivers on their way to their own destinations, the drive was precarious.
As we were gliding along- within the limits but consistent with the flow of traffic- we observed that a vehicle had pulled out from a crossing in front of us without the least hint of warning and had reduced its speed significantly so that we were hurtling, it seemed, toward a calamity.
I saw it all slowly as it unfolded. There is, in driving, that awful moment when occupants of a car are convinced beyond all doubt that they will never stop in time, that brakes are not sufficient and the car seems to have a mind of its own. Indeed, forcing the brakes and hoping for the best is all that is available or reasonable.
Spouse braked hard and we tensed ourselves, certain that we would hit the fellow in front of us.
It seemed that there was no other way. We were propelled toward the oversized vehicle with an alarming velocity.
In my fear, I turned and looked at Spouse, still with his eyes on the road and sandwich gripped tightly, and I watched as he inexplicably brought the food to his mouth and took an enormous bite.
Spouse said softly, through crumbs of what I seem to recall being chicken, "we're going to die!"
Still, he kept chewing, he kept the sandwich in his hand as our brakes squealed and our hearts sank.
When we understood, finally, that a dreadful accident had been avoided, and when we noted with a gasp the remaining space between the two vehicles, I calculated that one could not have placed so much as a chicken sandwich between the bumpers- such was the close call we had.
Afterward, when we could breathe again and talk about what happened, I found that Spouse was as astonished as I to discover his appetite had not been affected one whit. He had not known the depth of calm that he possessed.
It is very well indeed to keep calm and keep eating no matter the perils that lie ahead.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:48 AM
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
"Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake."
Each Tuesday evening during Summer there is a motorcycle convention at the far end of our local park. We stumbled upon it last year. When Spouse and I first happened by, it was a good deal of fun to us: leather-clad bikers regularly stream in from distant locations to greet one another in the midst of motorcycles and live music.
We could not always make time to go for a walk, and as a result our strolling routine was sporadic and unplanned.
Spouse and I began after some time to notice a strange pattern that unfolded over the course of last Summer: invariably, when we did set out for a walk at dusk, we would realise that it was Motorcycle Night- again- and that our opportunity for a quiet time and leisurely pace had been jeopardised- again.
Such an outing is all well and good in its own right but when one wishes to glide peacefully through a park and finds instead a thriving group of visitors, and when one has to suddenly navigate around an excess of joggers, children and dogs, it undermines the quality of the walk.
Spouse and I would look at one another, cry, "not again!" or "it's not Tuesday, is it?" and promise to be more wary of the schedule next time, sigh, and then proceed to worm our way through the plethora of people and cacophony of guitars.
As the Summer wore on, it became less of a joke and more of a frustration; we never intended to throw ourselves into the mass of motorcycle enthusiasts but somehow, without meaning to, Spouse and I found ourselves at the park only on Tuesdays. Not every single Tuesday- but each intermittent trip to the park incomprehensibly fell on that day.
This year, we seem to be struggling under the same spell that afflicted us last year. It has happened three times in the last six weeks. Yesterday was not one of the exceptions.
"Let's go for a walk," suggested Spouse last evening.
So we did, and we were surprised by the motorcycles once more as we attempted to discuss the theme of simplicity and which corner of the world to move to next, wholly engrossed in conversation.
Perhaps it is that last which sweeps our mind clean each time. Perhaps it is the need for being outdoors, and being propelled by fresh air as we talk about essential matters which causes us to be genuinely astonished at the surplus of motorcycles that pass by.
We are absent-minded about the day of the week because we enjoy walking for pleasure and because we like to discuss significant things that at times negate the need for schedules, appointments and avoidance of certain events.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:08 AM
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."
If one were to peer idly out a window here on an ordinary afternoon, and observe me making my way to the mailbox, and then glance at what I find in there, one might suspect that Spouse and I are not very popular.
On perhaps four days out of the week I throw open the door of the mailbox to find nothing but emptiness. As for the rest of the time- packages from Mater fill the void.
Those watching cannot imagine how pleasing it is, nor how hard Spouse and I worked to achieve this status.
Just under two years ago a frustrated Spouse, sinking under the weight of paperwork and advertising, determined to use the Internet for more services such as bill payments and banking, among others. He requested many companies to send statements and notices through the Internet rather than in bulky physical form. Signing up for less services meant that our address was dished out to a select and legitimate few.
It worked quite well but we had not counted on an even happier result.
Along the way, as our paper trail shrank, we began to also notice that gradually less unsolicited paper was getting into our mailbox. Due to a very specific, one-time error in the spelling of my name, I know for certain that a particular video store I frequented divulged my details to marketing companies, which resulted in my receiving much junk mail addressed to that incorrect name. The video store thereafter lost not only my patronage, but my personal details when Spouse and I found a new home.
During our last uprooting, the Rascals of Rubbish lost us altogether. We are now entirely free of the mass marketing and deluge of colourful pulp that inflicts many a post box. Save for an occasional offer of two pizzas for the price of one- placed weekly in all local boxes- we have succeeded in untangling ourselves from the chaos of superfluous mail.
May they never find us.
One man's empty mailbox might well be another man's simple life.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:42 PM
Monday, July 14, 2008
There are two types of people: those who come into a room and say, "Well, here I am!" and those who come in and say, "Ah, there you are."
-Frederick L. Collins
Whenever Spouse and I go to concerts- whether they are of our favourite singers or strangers to our ears- we enjoy listening to the original songs of that particular person.
Nothing so strange about that, one would say, unless, of course, they happen to be an entertainer best known for their ambitious recitals of others' work, which falls into a different category altogether.
It so happens that during our recent venture to see Lucinda Williams, an exceptional number of people spent an inordinate amount of time requesting the songs of other musicians.
"Pink Floyd!" some fellow shouted many a time.
I was unable to hear some of the other requests but am confident that they followed a similar pattern.
Those people asked, it seemed, for everybody but Lucinda herself, which was not the object of her intentions, and they had made their annoyance obvious as she attempted to carry on with her music.
I myself had no notion of just how distressing the scene was for those personally involved, and while I considered the actions similar to an itch that would soon dissipate, Lucinda was growing ever more bothered.
When she vanished for a few moments at the end of a song, a growing murmur of confusion spread across the audience.
She emerged minutes later and announced, to everyone's astonishment, that the incessant calling for other songs was affecting her, the band, and therefore the entire night.
She stated in a level tone that it was not easy to stand up there and sing when people obviously longed for something else.
So, she added, voice gaining a distinct edge, she hoped that people had not come to the concert searching for a different kind of music. Those that had, she insisted, could leave if they wanted to.
"Go. Just go," she urged the heckling few, the ones that had plagued her for songs she had not written and which the rest of us had not paid money to hear.
I wonder why it is that anybody would attend a Lucinda Williams concert and howl at the singer for non-Lucinda tunes.
That is akin to entering a seafood restaurant and demanding a hamburger, and becoming outraged at the results.
Mater is fortunate enough to be readying herself for a Tom Waits concert at the end of the month. I, who would have been there in a flash were it at all feasible, have tried in vain to picture my mother tutting and mumbling, arms folded, cross and unhappy when Tom Waits stubbornly refuses to sing the old Irish dance hall numbers that she knew as a youngster.
Mater would never consider such a thing, both due to her fine manners and to the fact that she wants only to hear the music of Tom Waits, as promised.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 2:33 PM
Sunday, July 13, 2008
“Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
Last evening Spouse and I attended a Lucinda Williams concert in our neighbourhood. In the days leading to the event we were muted in our anticipation. Ever since we held Bob Dylan tickets in our hands and had to surrender them due to a conflict of schedule, we tend not to believe something marvellous until we see or hear it.
Once, before Spouse and I met, I was blessed with a little extra money and had a choice of Lucinda Williams albums to buy: I chose one for its cover art and for the extensive reviews I had read about the singer.
Within roughly the same time period but of course on another continent, Spouse was presented with the same choice, and he bought the other.
How happy we were, then, to meet and put our albums side by side. We never considered that we might one day wander down to our local park to watch Lucinda Williams serenading the community with our favourite tunes.
It was a fine evening to witness the performance. However, halfway through the second song Lucinda Williams suddenly ceased singing and announced, as the instrumentals rolled on without a pause, that the lead guitarist had a bee in his shirt which was, as one would expect, causing him great difficulty.
Despite the presence of the bee the band maintained their composure and the song resumed once the creature had been dispatched to the night sky.
The song struck up again, only to halt shortly afterward when Lucinda Williams began to cough: she had inhaled some of the bugs which were thick in the air. After much spluttering and some sips of water and apologies she attempted the song once more, this time successfully.
There is a good deal to be said about seeing one's most beloved singers fight bees and swallow bugs like ordinary human beings do, then bravely battle on with the task at hand like the extraordinary people we have long held them to be.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 8:36 AM
Saturday, July 12, 2008
"The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."
Recently in the House of Mater the television set became a source of trouble. Mater might sink into her armchair to watch a show or a film only to discover a crackling picture as grainy and meaningless as a cloudy sky.
A considerable amount is paid for the satellite channels, so the loss of viewing is not acceptable.
After it happened for the fourth or fifth time in as many days, Mater marched outside in a fury and looked up at the satellite dish as one does with hopes that mere observation will bring sudden enlightenment.
In this case she was proved justified: there was an old crow perched up there, his gnarled toes clinging to the edge of the dish. He shook his feathers and eyed my mother with an indifferent air.
She clapped her hands; he grew tired of the strange human business below and sailed away, leaving Mater to happily find that the television reception had resumed.
It happened again the next day though, and the day after that. Mater became aware after a while that a bird was always at fault, and, too, that it was the very same crow every time.
Each has their routine now: he sits up there and inadvertently interferes with the image that is beamed into the house; she slaps her hands together to announce that it is her time, her earned right to watch the evening news.
Without that assigned period, my mother would not have prior knowledge of the weather formations above my head, and thus would not be able to warn me- who watches no television- of rain, wind or worse in my own part of the world.
The obtuse crow, sensing Mater's frustration and panic, generally obliges and grants her the opportunity to partake of a short interim of current affairs and world news.
This I find most intriguing: it is often supposed that the flutter of a butterfly's wings could begin a sequence of events that alters the universe.
One should consider, instead, the humble Irish crow, who determines with a crafty hook of his claw whether I will carry an umbrella or a sunhat or indeed whether I will remain indoors or go strolling.
One could always, of course, look up at the sky for simple assistance in that regard but I, like many, do rather prefer the idea of all actions and all living things being connected to one another.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:46 AM
Friday, July 11, 2008
“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”
When Spouse and I lived in California we took a train journey one Christmastime. We wanted to experience the railways in the United States, and it was a rather charming time of year to venture to a new city.
We set out for Oakland; our destination was Jack London Square.
The train, as friends had warned us was a possibility, was halted on the tracks for more than two hours for undisclosed reasons.
Spouse and I were prepared with our books, snacks and water, our camera and a reasonable amount of good humour. We vowed to enjoy the time despite the setback- after all, our primary purpose had been to take a train journey. Oakland was merely the place for us to stretch our legs and wander about for a while in the bite of early December.
After the train began to move again and some time had lapsed, we were entertained by some jovial musicians: the hearty quartet of men and women dressed in Dickensian garb bounded into our carriage and proceeded to sing some rousing Christmas carols.
Their choruses were delightful and the singers appeared to be having the time of their lives, enthusiastically pouring out melodies for the pleasure of the holiday travellers.
I recall that they did an especially lovely rendition of 'Away in a Manger,' their hushed voices blending in perfect harmony. The entire compartment was enraptured by the beaming troupe who had surprised us gratuitously with their talents.
When that tune concluded, one of the singers asked if anybody had a musical request; they would sing to order for the benefit of their listeners.
Then a lady, sitting in close proximity to the performers, said with supreme confidence and spirited joy of the season, "what about 'Away in a Manger?' I'd like to hear that."
A dull silence blanketed the carriage and all eyes were transfixed in horror on the person who had just spoken and made a dreadful, foolish error. We each were aware of the impending embarrassment- except for the oblivious woman who waited eagerly for her choice to be sung.
The leader of the group considered for a moment and then said as elegantly as he could, "well, we did just sing that one, but perhaps you'd like something else?" Thus the difficult encounter was banished after sufficient blushing and apologising transpired.
I fiercely admire those who choose not to make little of people's faults and mistakes. The spirit of compassion was prevalent on the train that Winter afternoon; that little stroke of leniency completed its journey to Jack London Square and back again, to be marked, I hope, at least by some of those who were present.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:18 AM
Thursday, July 10, 2008
“The truly innocent are those who not only are guiltless themselves, but who think others are”
"Owl?" asked the child softly. We were at our friends' home and I had charge of the little fellow for a short time. His fingers clutched a pen, and it was pointed at me.
I deduced rightly that he wanted me to draw for him an owl. He had no foreknowledge of my lack of accomplishment in the art of sketching and no inkling of my self conscious nervousness as I accepted the pen with much dread.
I hardly knew what I was doing but I began, anyhow, with two little circles for the bird's eyes- to my own it was a pitiful and unbird-like sight. I imagined that the child could probably cast a better image than I of an owl.
As I enclosed the eyes inside another, larger circle for the owl's face, as I cringed inwardly, there came an unmistakable murmur of approval.
He whispered a single word: "wow."
A dash more inspired, I completed the task with a flourish, and subsequently was requested to draw a baby owl, which pleased me enormously.
That lone word had floated on a prolonged sigh that carried no hint of doubt.
The child considered my drawing to be a beautiful thing.
He thought this not because of the perfect and aesthetic quality of the picture: rather, it had to do with a purer quality that assured him I could do no wrong. He trusted me wholly, being mercifully yet immune to the lack of confidence and self-judgement that causes creative people to destroy their efforts in a moment of unfounded criticism.
The child beside me was oblivious to the notion that I could not draw.
We grow up, we leave childish thoughts behind us, and then we habitually shake our heads in wonderment at children's capacity to marvel at simple things. We excuse it under the assumption that babies do not know any better; that the world, being fresh to their eyes, seems all amazing until they learn to properly discriminate and find otherwise.
So far as that child knew, I was equipped with a pen and paper, hands and eyes and knowledge of ordinary small creatures: why, then, should he doubt my ability to form a rudimentary illustration of an owl?
The real question is this: why should I?
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:14 AM
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us.
This last weekend was very pleasantly spent with our friends in Maine. They treated their two and a half year old son to the gift of an enormous plastic dinosaur- according to his current obsession- that walks, shakes its tail and roars as it waddles.
This particular child uncommonly likes bathtime, and is used to having his growing collection of creatures- the inanimate ordinary ones of course- in the soapy water alongside him.
Imagine his grief, then, when told that the new acquisition could not, for the sake of its longevity, be submerged in bathwater. It could not be permitted to share any part of bathtime with the little fellow and as a grim result he grew increasingly loud, his distraught sobs causing many a riptide in the tub and many a ripple in his parents' hearts.
Eventually the boy was made to understand, if not the fact of the dinosaur's certain destruction, then at least the word 'no' and soon he was paddling and splashing merrily, with half a thought on the new toy that awaited him afterward.
All the while that bathtime was in progress, I could only sit and think of the devastation I had unleashed upon my brother many years ago.
He was nine and I six; he had been given a remote-controlled army tank for Christmas which I liked very much. I admired the sturdiness of the toy, was intrigued by the exotic nature of how it could be propelled forward and backward, and wistful, so wistful of the fact that it was not my own.
I thought that I would like to know how it worked, and, too, to see it move underwater. So, on a quiet afternoon shortly after Christmas I plugged up the bathroom sink, filled the basin to the top and set the tank on what I imagined to be the ocean floor.
It took little time for me to understand that the tank was in trouble and, more worryingly, so was I.
It sputtered and the wheels churned water before it wound down with an alarming sigh.
My brother might easily have dismissed the toy as an unfortunately faulty piece of equipment, and I might have got away with my escapade- except for the water that was continuously leaking from the sides of the tank and cruelly betraying me as the only possible culprit.
I wished I could buy him another, or fix it, or leap through time and advise myself not to put it in the sink in the first place.
He was so unhappy, and I felt dreadful long after the occasion had passed.
I am sure my brother has forgotten all about it by now, more than twenty years later, but it strangely seems that the one who causes the trouble has to carry the burden of it for the longest time.
It only took a walking, talking dinosaur to remind me once again.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 11:56 AM
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
“The hardest part is what to leave behind, ... It's time to let go!”
-Winnie the Pooh
A couple of years ago Spouse and I visited the home of some people we know. It was our very first opportunity to see their house and how they lived in it.
Despite knowing them a degree better than Spouse did, I was nonetheless taken aback by the sparseness of their home.
Spouse was almost awkward in the shockingly empty setting.
They had practically no miscellaneous belongings, at least none that were visible.
There was a lack of photographs, few items of furniture and no identifiable clutter; pale walls and unadorned floors greeted us with a blank stare.
We were particularly surprised because the pair are financially well established and it was the last thing we expected from people who could easily afford the finer things in life.
Spouse and I agreed that it looked quite as though our hosts were about to vacate the house.
We spent a relaxing couple of days in the company of our kind hosts and as we observed the house and the way they ran their lives, something about our frame of mind began to evolve.
I am certain it must have because now, two years later we wish to go back, step inside the door and gauge our new reactions.
I think that they would be of a most interesting nature.
Our hosts were, as it turns out, one of our most significant catalysts for change.
Theirs was most clearly a lifestyle choice, a certain plan to own less and to be bothered less by the weight of various things.
The entire process that we embarked upon of removing most of our possessions and flinging out more items that we bring in was partly due to the short time we stayed in that house. We barely realised it at the time save for an offhand comment Spouse made toward the end of the visit. He mused that perhaps it was not such a bad way to live after all, once one grew used to the lack of frills and extraneous material goods that usually decorate a home.
In fact, Spouse considered, he almost understood it.
These days we more than understand it: for us there is nothing better than jumble-free corners, knowing where everything is and being conscious of the fact that one's life could be happily packed into a few boxes. On the latter point we are struggling but striving and- most essential- we enormously enjoy the project we have undertaken. That last bit is vital- the whole matter of whether to have more possessions or less revolves around that single point: happiness.
What now strikes us both is our initial impression of a slightly dressed house; not simply how much we have changed but that the germ of the idea began from our own reflexes and opposition to such a lifestyle.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:44 PM
Monday, July 7, 2008
"It is not down in any map; true places never are."
Spouse and I grumbled about the sudden diversion on our way home. The roadworks and warning signs had been pitifully difficult to see, and abruptly we found ourselves propelled off the main road and rambling along an uneven stretch of countryside. The meandering route of twenty miles promised to set us back at least thirty minutes- rather precious time considering that we were travelling with an amount of kindly donated frozen fish and had set out from our friends' house much later than we intended.
A convoy of fellow drivers, also forced to diverge, soon gathered behind and in front of us as we trailed at a slower pace than we would have wished.
It was drawing near to evening time as we found ourselves silently observing the dream-like greenery of the landscape. A ghostly mist was slowly wrapping itself around the shadows of broken tractors, rusty gates and dense, dark woods.
We coasted past crooked barns whose cobwebbed, vacant windows offered a fleeting glimpse of the past and of half-forgotten history. We caught the brief flash of a river that intersected time itself.
The unfamiliar fragment of the world that we stumbled upon was exquisitely ripe and overgrown green, and exuded so powerful a sense of history as to seem almost drunk with it; I doubt the scene had changed at all in the last century.
Spouse and I have seen many a beautiful place in our travels but such a detour at the close of a perfect Summer day was so spectacular and unexpected that it took our breath away there and then.
As a rule when driving we do choose the scenic route even though it tends to extend the journey, and in our hearts we are always aware that the wider roads tend to offer little in the way of beauty. On this occasion, though, we had been inclined to complain a little about the delay both because of our concern for the fish and because we had not anticipated the extent of the magic.
We both felt enveloped by the persisting goodness and warmth of a nook that we could lamentably only experience from a moving car.
Spouse said, as roadsigns advised the end of the detour and we began our descent into what is commonly termed civilisation, that he was really quite glad we were forced to go astray.
I think that we would like to go back for a visit, or to live there permanently.
One can ask nothing more of a detour.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:27 PM
Thursday, July 3, 2008
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
I was nine when my family and myself motored to the west side of Ireland for a camping trip. At some point in time it was decided that we would all climb Croagh Patrick, the area's mountain that peaked at 2,510 feet. Used in ancient Ireland as a place of religious pilgrimage but in more recent times mostly for the pleasure of hiking, this was an adventure to be savoured.
As we tramped upward, I heard little stories about people climbing the mountain in their bare feet, staying for days on the top in solitude. I saw people passing us by on bicycles, wheeling precariously along the broken rim. The drop was an unquestionably hazardous one and as we ascended, spiralling along the mountain's worn path and leaving the safety of the ground below us, it became ever more treacherous.
Mater was not and never would aspire to be a mountain climber and so our pace was gentle. It was so relaxed, in fact, that as the hours wore on we began to recognise the faces of people coming down of those who had passed us going up: we presumed that they had escalated to the tip of the mountain and come halfway down again before we had plodded very far.
Such a velocity would not suit a child for very long and I decided to run ahead a little, around a curve, in order to better cope with Mater's snail-like velocity and surrender to my independent spirit.
I suddenly found that the previously level path was now sloping at a frightening angle, and indeed sloping quite in the wrong direction- that is, toward the open void below.
I felt exactly as though I were sliding, inch by inch, to the abyss and it seemed to me that I was on a conveyor belt, about to be propelled into blue-sky emptiness. I panicked. I began to cry, and I took hold of the nearest rock, threw my arms around its solid mass and hoped that it too would not start to crawl toward the lip of the mountain. It felt just as though the rock were the only dependable thing in sight.
I had raced ahead a considerable distance and so I sat wrapped around the rock for what felt like hours, crying until a lone hiker paused to see if I was all right. The gentleman was very concerned and kind; he listened to my woes, to my insistence that we would slide off the side of the mountain. He stayed with me until the rest of my party arrived, whereupon I could be convinced to release my grip on the stone.
I stayed by Mater's side for the remainder of the day, even when my cousin and my brother opted to strive for the summit.
I wanted very much to try but the last two hundred feet consisted of nothing but loose stones and tumbling soil- the path had long since vanished, and hands, knees and a steady grip were required tools for the last stretch of the journey.
Mater and I did not reach the highest point of the mountain. Perhaps a combination of not wishing to abandon her, and having had a fearful experience made me grateful I had got that far in one piece.
I think about it: we could be kind to a stranger on a mountain side and never become wise to the extent of our assistance: I will not easily forget the fellow who helped to ease my worry and who took the time to make a difference both in my day and in the years beyond.
*We will be celebrating the 4th of July weekend in Maine with our friends, and normal service should be resumed on Monday, presuming that we do not meet, like last time, a traffic jam, or decide to live in Maine permanently for the sausage bread. Have a wonderful weekend.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:25 AM
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
"Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."
A couple of miles from my home in Ireland, there is a bend in the road, and a minor bump on the bend. The uneven surface invariably causes a car to sway uneasily for just a moment.
Many years ago I was travelling with my brother and he suddenly commented, almost offhandedly, that it felt "a bit like being in a boat."
I never forgot his whimsical words, and even after my brother got his own car, left home and hardly travelled with us anymore I thought of it every time I went over that bit of road.
It became a joke of sorts; I made a habit of saying the same to Mater when we rode over the stretch: "it does feel like a boat."
These days it is left to Mater, whether motoring alone or with my cousin, to carry on the torch of her offspring's curious observation. The fragment has become as much a part of her driving routine as the soft-eyed sheep, plush fields and crumbling stone walls that sweep past her windows.
We three are separated now by varying distances, but I can say for certain that when the links of memory are carefully knotted together, we are all in the same boat.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 10:50 AM
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Some time ago I packed up my belongings and moved to California so that Spouse could become properly suited to his name.
I had to return to Ireland a few years later to get a different visa; the process took a year and involved all sorts of checking up- medical, financial and otherwise.
It was a very fortunate thing that the first journey was not paved with those sorts of obstacles- although it was not without pitfalls of its own.
The morning before I was to depart from Ireland, before connecting to the United States via England, I was informed by telephone that there was an inspired Irish airline strike and flights were cancelled. It would not even then have been so terrible as long they had cancelled all flights instead of just the stretch to London.
In a word, I was on my own. The airline had every small-print legality conveniently worked out: they could only be held accountable for the flight that did not take off.
My passage from London was still scheduled- so if I did not get aboard it was quite my own responsibility and all money paid thus far would fall quietly into a deep pocket not my own.
We did not know what to do for the best. The plan of a simple trip to the airport a mere half an hour from my home had turned into a time-sensitive labyrinth of questions and eliminations, head scratching, hair pulling and grinding of teeth.
After a while I agreed to the following: to drive to the train station; take the next train across Ireland to a ferry; sail to Wales; catch a train at the harbour to take me to England and then a bus straight into London's heart.
It was my only chance but for it to work I needed my mother. I was leaving home and my luggage was considerably heavy. I could not by myself drag my entire life's possessions on that monstrous journey; another pair of hands were needed.
Mater and I bought train and ferry tickets with such tremendous speed that we never saw the colour of our money.
As the ferry docked in Wales and we prepared, after a long, sleepless night of anxiety, to step off the ship for the next portion of the trip, I found that there was a strange problem with my luggage.
I could not drag it down the walkway.
I heaved, I pushed, I pulled; I did all but attempt to drag it by my teeth. It was too heavy and I was exhausted.
As Mater stood by helplessly- for she was in charge of the rest of my bags- I felt the hefty green mountain at my feet suddenly give way. Somebody was helping me. Some kind passenger was putting their own woes aside and assisting a stranger.
Tears sprang to my eyes.
Oh, but not merely for the kindness of it all: the helping hands belonged to a woman who was, I insist, at least in her mid-seventies.
The spritely woman wrapped her hands around one end while I took hold of the other and together we reached the waiting train where, as though the mass of canvas was weightless, she helped me once again before saying farewell.
As it turned out I did reach the airport and board my flight with minutes to spare but when looking back it is my furious struggle with luggage that springs to mind: I will always remember my helper with a curious fusion of humiliation and gratitude.
That is why, then, I will be eternally grateful that no medical exam was required for my entrance to the United States at that particular time: I fear that I would have been much disappointed by the results.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:15 AM