Sunday, October 31, 2010


from a long trip to the Midwest.

Going, Staying, Coming Back

mid-October, our young yellow birch tree,
"Maurice", now completely leafless


First Stop:  Beantown!

Apparition time 

A Halloween ghostie fastened to a tree near Boston, Mass.  swirls around in the wind and abruptly turns to face me as I snap its picture.  The freaky thing was, it followed me, with its hollow missing eye holes in its ghoulish skull, all the way down the street.

Please, no nightmares tonight, I remember wishing.

View from the kitchen of a friend in Cambridge, where I was introduced  to a new fern-like plant called a Cycad ...

a kind of living fossil from millions of years ago; its seeds are neurotoxins, I've since learned.  In the window, with the sun dancing on its feathery limbs, it was so elegant and graceful.  These pictures do not do it justice.

On October 17th  I began a three-day journey from Boston to Indianapolis with a rideshare companion who was en route to St. Louis.  It started out as a leisurely trek on secondary roads "to see a bit of the country".

So here we were somewhere deep in the back roads of the Wendell State Forest in Massachusetts heading towards Miller's Falls and the Mohawk Trail; the pavement suddenly disappeared, the little hills got steeper, and the road narrowed and became a gravelly dirt pathway. Hard little rocks began hitting the underside of the car.  So much for "Let drive off the beaten path."
The GPS, which was programmed to sound like a female with a British accent, kept interrupting to announce that she was RE-CAL-CU-LATING.  (We were to hear this word numerous times as we continued onward.)

Not that Miss GPS was always so accurate herself.  She (we began calling her "she") once instructed us to cross a bridge that was boarded up and inaccessible; she called rotaries "roundabouts" and crossways "ramps" and often urged us to "Make a U-turn AS SOON AS POSSIBLE".  This is what happens when you program a specific destination into the GPS and then decide that hey, this other area over here looks more interesting, let's go this way instead.   At times, she became downright annoying, that voice.  (One could, I suppose, reprogram the GPS with the voice of Mr. T:  "Turn left, fool!!"  ha ha.)  

Besides music from the car radio we also listened to a CD that my travel partner found on a sidewalk in Lexington the previous week, which she picked up and washed--of some professor of literature giving a class lecture on Shakespeare, talking about the Puritans in 1642 banning stage productions because they considered them morally offensive. Halfway through the CD, the grooves malfunctioned and the monologue skrrrrrrrrrkked to a halt.  But by that time we were in need of a pit stop anyway.

We stopped to enhale the mountain air and stretch our legs.  A restaurant sitting atop a hill afforded a magnificent view of the mountains and valley.  Their clam chowder, however, was less than lofty.  (Sorry, guys.  That was the assessment reported to me.  I stuck to my peanut butter sandwich and apple.)

A boulder on the hillside caught my eye--more specifically, the crack in its side, and the little twig poking out of it with its spray of tiny yellow leaves fluttering in the wind.  The rock was Enormous.  Wall size.

We stopped for coffee at this little café in Elmira, New York.  The book Who is Mark Twain? was prominently displayed on the counter near the register and large posters of  Twain graced the walls of the café and restroom.  The people in this café and town clearly love him.  (Mark Twain is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira.)

Saw some geese crossing the skies heading south, at about noon.  Lois, my travel companion, was a wealth of information about all things interesting and unusual, from the innovative exhibits presented at a solar decathalon in Washington, D.C. last October to instructions on how to make essential oils from cedar oil mixed with ylang-ylang and vetivert. I had never heard of ylang-ylang or vetivert before.

Roadkill Count

I stopped counting after #13 but I think there were around 23 all told, at journey's end:  Skunks, squirrels, possums, beavers, cats, deer, and other unidentifiable little creatures seeking water or refuge, perishing while crossing a highway rampant with road-pounding car and truck wheels.

We listened to a book-on-tape novel by Alexander McColl Smith as the sun sank in the sky.  I learned from a radio broadcast about backpacking in Cuba; that the Mexican border to the U.S. is 2,000 miles long; the Canadian border, 5,000 miles long, and that 2,700 years ago was the first recorded war.  We're still recording wars, daily.  Lois tells me about a vegetarian resort in Umbria and extols the benefits of a raw food diet.  I crave chocolate, and dream of sleep.

At this point I stopped taking pictures and put away the camera.    We entered Ohio and drove through endless small towns with flags displayed on their porches, schools, grocery stores, lawns and garden sheds,  past fields of corn and horses and wheat.  I've lived in Ohio before.  Twice. 

The land ... so flat
the sky
like being dropped into Where-Am-I-Land

By the way, if you're ever in Macedonia, Ohio and crave some good Mexican food, a relatively new little restaurant called "Dos Coronas" has a special on margaritas Monday nights.  Their food is wonderful--generous servings for very reasonable prices.  It was recommended to us, and I'm in turn passing it on.

Final leg of the journey, we pulled over at a roadside farmstand and got some fresh tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and onions, leaving our money in the bucket provided (nobody home at the farm; they sell their veggies on the honor system)..


Destination Reached 

Indiana, afternoon of the third day.  I said goodbye to Lois, my traveling companion, and continued on to my son's house, to meet the new grandbub.  Hugs goodbye, hugs hello.  There at last.

The child in your arms, so different from the one in the photographs.  Photographs can't give you the  feel of  this tiny being held close, the sound of his baby coos and gurgles or the warmth of his soft face snuggling into your neck as you listen to his quiet, measured breathing.  They can't duplicate the rhythm of his heart beaing next to yours; or the delight in the sudden grin that emerges, for no particular reason, from his happy little face; or the instant love that pours out of you as you get to know him. 

It was a long and difficult birth and the first weeks were a nightmare of colic and sleeplessness but they--he and his parents--have found their rhythm.  They read to him every night and he lies there listening, to words as a pattern of sound,  as yet incomprehensible, installing itself into him.  He likes music, waving and flopping his hands to his own beat or drifting off to sleep under a fluffly blanket to the strains of Ode to Joy or Bach (but he also likes the nonsense rhymes Grammy sings, to distract him from a tummy ache or to invite sleep). (Do all grandparents gush on this way?)

And for some reason, he is absolutely fascinated with these particular butterflies:

my grandson talks
butterflies ....

In fact, I'm told, when he was in the hospital, during those first days, he did not like the nurses poking and fussing with him.  But there was this one nurse who had a butterfly on her shirt -- she was the only one he felt comfortable with.  Could it be his mother's butterfly pendant he first saw and after that, loved everything butterflies?  Who knows.  But every time he's carried past that wall plaque, he becomes mezmerized and will stare and stare and stare at them, as if they are telling him something. 

I got to hold him and feed him (and change him) and watch him and play with him and enjoy him, for six whole days!  I know all his little quirks now; how he reacts to certain things, what he likes and doesn't like--even how he can con you into giving him more attention, ha ha.  He loves the water, which leads me to think maybe he will also love swimming someday.  Hates hats, though, and has inherited my father's side of the family's big feet, poor thing.  But man, what a grip the little guy has, and what strong, kicky feet!

His bedroom has dozens of  tiny stars pasted on the ceiling and walls, as well as some hanging planets so that when the lights are out, they all glow in the dark.  What a scene to fall asleep to, and I did every night, "under the stars."  Words cannot express how magnificent this sight is, darkness lit up by the sky as the ceiling.

My son lives in a gated apartment complex in a suburb with a number of shopping malls nearby--big, sprawling ones, medium-sized ones,  little ones on a strip, adjacent to tracts of residences with perfectly manicured lawns next to busy highways.   Everyday familiar scenes seemed missing:  Like people actually walking on the sidewalks, anyone on a bicycle anywhere, the sound of spoken French.

 Gun Love

In the vicinity on the weekend, a gun show, a man at the fairgrounds armed to the teeth, walking around in full combat gear, a real live action figure strutting his stuff.  A story is told about a local man recently apprehended for impersonating a police officer.  He wore a cop uniform and pulled people over on the highway, it is unclear just why.  They discovered an AK-47 assault weapon in the trunk of his car along with other assorted ammunition.  I thought it was a federal offence, punishable by jail time, to impersonate an officer of the law.  This guy was, however, let go, no charges filed, apparently because ... he hadn't "done" anything.  (I am tempted to add the word "yet").   The Ku Klux Klan is active in a town not far away.  I hate guns.  I hate Hate.  That sounds funny.  I mean, I  hate that there's so much hate in America, and that some people are so enamored of assault weapons that they insist on wearing them as everyday apparell; that introduction of guns begins early in society, with plastic toys and video games instilling the thrill to kill in little minds that absorb things like a sponge.


And Then It Was Time to Go

Severe storm warnings were broadcast on the TV perched above the metal benches in the Greyhound bus terminal.   A tornado, they said.  There was a  policeman sitting, asleep, at the security desk.  This gentleman is being paid to ensure security for the bus terminal, in case a brawl ensues or someone tries to steal your pocketbook.  He must have been up all night the night before because he simply could not stay awake.  He slept, arms folded, slumped at his desk, in that exact same position, for THREE HOURS.  So much for security.

The bus did not arrive on time, not because of  the tornado but because the Greyhound bus driver failed to show up for work.  Meanwhile, the ceiling began leaking, big time.  A janitor hurriedly rushed out with two buckets and a mop, because the water was now falling on some of the passengers' luggage.  "Hmmmpf," said a passenger in line next to me, pointing to the gigantic sports stadium directly across the street.  "They have money to build a new stadium here but can't fix the damn leaks in the bus station ceiling."

The bus did finally arrive, two hours and 15 minutes late, which meant those of us having to change buses in Columbus, OH would miss our connections.  I was scheduled to arrive in Buffalo, NY  at 9:15 p.m.  I actually didn't get there until after 2:00 a.m. the next day.

Reading Helps

Never go on a long trip without a book--preferably, three.  The three I took with me were two books of poems by Wislawa Szymborska, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  It was this novel that I climbed into to escape the bus trip from hell.  I managed to inhabit and absorb 436 pages before trip's end.

Common courtesy seems to be a dying practice these days among service personnel who are paid to serve you.  You are instructed, upon boarding the bus, NOT to disturb the driver with questions, unless it's an emergency (according to one driver, "only if you are dying").  Otherwise, they will not answer you.

If you inadvertently misplace or God forbid, lose your ticket while in transit, you may be forced to buy a duplicate in order to continue on to your destination.  The fact that you have a baggage claim showing your name, the date of ticket purchase and final destination is irrelevant.  You will not be allowed to reboard the bus.  You can petition for a refund but that will take time.

Policy enforcement on Greyhound buses seems random.  One driver announced that "If you're inebriated, or imbibing small bottles of liquor, you WILL be ejected from the bus."

Another driver, however, did nothing while a passenger at the back of the bus--clearly heavily "under the influence"--loudly complained, shouted, told jokes, sang songs and quoted Bible passages all the way from Columbus to Akron, while people tried in vain to sleep.  A collective sigh of relief when this gentleman finally disembarked.

An Aside about
Our Cultural Costumes

Along the way a small group of Amish people rode with us.  The women wore identical long dresses, black capes, and stiff black bonnets (as did their babies) and the men identical black hats, vests, and blue shirts.  They all had the same style and color of shoes:   Basic.  Plain.  Black.  They are a familiar sight in certain areas of the country, a people who live simply, without electricity, telephones, automobiles, farm machinery or television, and they still use horse-drawn carriages to get about.  

I observed people observing them--mainly the ones who'd apparently never seen them before.  "How quaint," some of their facial expressions indicated, as if trying to imagine how anyone today could live without, gasp, a TV or Iphone.  Others merely stared (mostly at the long dresses and bonnets) and moved on.  Live and let live.  I wondered what would have been the reaction had it been a group wearing a different kind of cultural costume--say turbans and burkas.

 Being Halloween and all, I got to thinking  about costumes--the ones we wear at special events, the ones we wear  every day, and those chosen specifically as a means of identification.   Uniforms are also a kind of costume.

Costume:  A style of dress, including garments, accessories, and hairstyle, especially as characteristic of a particular country, period, or people.  An outfit or a disguise.
Uniform:   A dress of a particular style or fasciation worn by persons in the same service or order by means of which they have a distinctive appearance.

 Odd.  I had never considered hairstyle as being a costume before.  But doctors, for example, in their white coats; military people with their  medals or bush fatigues; adolescents with their baggy jeans and spiked  hair; neo-Nazis with their skinned heads, knuckles and chains, all wear special garments as identifiers, on or off the job.  It's when the hair is all cut off, the uniform taken away, the title lost, that the person might  feel a bit naked.  The apparell, the appendage, solidifies the identity.  Suddenly losing that can be traumatic for some.   Without one's armor, one is vulnerable. Costumes sometimes function as substitute armor, I think.

What fascinates me, though, is the  need of  large groups of human beings to wear the symbols with which they identify most closely, as everyday, necessary apparell.  Necessary in the sense that they would never consider leaving home without it, and that to do so might somehow lead to grouplessness (from whatever group they consider themselves a member of).

Carrying the symbol, wearing the costume, is an act signifying a chosen allignment with a particular social/ethnic/cultural/religious group, or  movement.  It's like saying, without actually saying it:  "I am a (fill in the blank)."   The Amish people at the bus station and a young man in a hoodie, separately and unintentionally, presented an example of this whole 'costume' issue, about which I've often pondered. The peculiar habits of humans, how they dress, what they think, and who they feel they are.  (Did I just say "they", ha ha.  Shouldn't that be a "we" (referring to humans)?  As if I am part alien or something!

A tall, pimply-faced, skinny dude with watchful eyes at the Indianapolis bus station arrived wearing a black hoodie on which was printed, in gigantic letters, the chilling message:   NAPALM DEATH.   He looked as if he hadn't eaten in days and was considering panhandling  the waiting bus passangers, then changed his mind and slunk away.  A much more successful panhandler was the impeccably dressed elderly Black gentleman in Columbus, Ohio positioned at the candy-bar vending machine, humbly apologizing for intruding but could you possibly please spare some money so he could go buy a sandwich, he hasn't eaten all day.  "I'm a Vet and just came from the hospital," he added, for emphasis.  In the course of ten minutes he had collected more than enough for a sandwich, and then some.  But he never bought one. Such is the economy today, one gets by how one can.

People see the word NAPALM DEATH on a pimply-faced punk and turn away, appalled.  People hear the word "Vet" and  reach into their pockets to help.  It's all in how you say a  thing--with your voice, with your costume, with your manner.  You will either reach out and connect with people, or you won't.  Words and costumes  .... truth and masks ... and how we interpret things.

It is sometimes amusing how adamantly some humans are attached to their titles.  Titles are a different sort of  costume.  How many doctors or generals or sargeants or priests cringe when someone doesn't address them by their duly appointed, earned title?  Say, at a public picnic, referring to them as Mister (or worse yet, just their first name,"Bob" or "Jim" or "Mike"  instead of "Doctor" or "General" or "Father"?  Without the uniform, absent the costume, how would anyone know you're more than just a plain ordinary Mister?  Doctors don't usually wear their white hospital coats to public picnics but Sargeants and Generals sometimes do.  And priests, of course, their collars.  Wouldn't leave home without it.

Acceptance of others' cultural or professional costumes is a sign of civility, implying respect for who someone is or what they have achieved.  On Halloween we dress up and pretend to be ghosts and zombies, monsters and vampires, clowns or bums or buffoons, wearing masks to hide our true identity.  It's when you can look at one's true identity without the mask and still see zombies and monsters that things get frightening.

As for the NAPALM DEATH kid, it could've been a simple misinterpretation on my part--that his vacant eyes spoke of  mere boredom and not starvation; that the chilling message on his hoodie was simply a trendy fashion statement--designer duds with nihilistic jingo, $49 plus tax.  One never knows about impressions, and word association can be tricky.

The way to tell, by the way, if a panhandler is truly starving, is when he asks you for money for "something to eat" and you offer to share your peanut butter sandwich with him.  If he takes it and begins eating, he's legit, as they say.  If he simply struts away to find a more accommodating (cash only) donor, you might begin to suspect he was pulling your leg.

What cynics the backlash of society's destitution has made of us!.  (Once in the New York Port Authority bus depot I asked directions from a bystander for where to go for a particular departure gate.  Thanking the person, I headed in the appropriate direction, only to be stopped by an outstretched hand demanding $1.00, for having shown me the way.  Information doesn't come cheap these days, apparently. 

Home Sweet Home

The bus for Canada left in the wee hours of the next morning, from Buffalo, where I'd managed to get about 2-1/2 hours sleep the night before.  What a contrast in the attitude and behavior of both the Canadian bus driver/border officials, and their American counterparts.  The Canadians were all extraordinarily polite, professional, and completely bilingual.  I only mention this because this is not a situation you will find at certain U.S. border entry points or bus terminals where simple inquires are responded to rudely or not at all, and the overall impression is one of intimidation and/or their just not giving a damn.  Fellow passengers have often remarked on the difference between these two countries' attitude and behavior at their respective borders,  which correlates somewhat with my own experience of over a decade of traveling back and forth between the two. This is not an "Us or Them" thing. It's just an observation.

Earlier I called my trip back "the trip from hell"--because of the long, unforseen delays, missed bus connections, lost ticket, surly agents, a particularly insufferable fellow bus passenger; rude, insolent, sloppy, unprofessional bus drivers and hours and hours spent sitting on hard metal benches waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, lack of sleep, and

Why, you ask.

Why would anyone put oneself through this, ha ha.  "Why don't you just take a plane?!!"  said my son (and any number of other people, incredulous).  "You'd get home in five hours, instead of 2 days."  True.  It's not that I haven't flown before.  I have, but it's been awhile, a very very LONG while.  Here's the thing:  in the meantime I seem to have somehow acquired this frightful Full-Fledged Phobia, having nothing to do with terrorists and everything to do with being trapped in a metal tube in the sky, unable to exit at will.

I figured it out, though.  It's not the plane I fear.  It's not even the possibility of crashing (though that's still there).  It's the fear of the Fear that I fear, if that makes any sense.  Fear of the Fear of realizing I'm about to die.   I can't seem to control it.  It controls me.  And the odd thing is, I allow it.  (How else to explain the numbing inability to overcome it?)    And, as these things sometimes do, it has mushroomed, extending to, yes, even Elevators. Ask my mate.  I will walk up 12 flights of stairs before I take an elevator.  How insane is that?!!

I've tried to analyze this and decided it's not the fear of containment-without-exit per se that's so frightening, nor even perhaps the byproducts of the fear, which are the frightening sensatons they impart--but Death, or more precisely, Ultimate Unconsciousness.

It's ironic that the book I chose to bring with me, The Book Thief previously mentioned, is narrated by ... Death.  I travel all the way cross country to greet a new life, and come back engulfed in a novel about Death.  Go figure.  But no, really, it's a wonderful book that  I simply couldn't put down.

Absent Justification, Rationalize

So this started out to be a small, brief (Ha!) summary of my recent trip to the States--part travelogue, part observation, part opinion--something to blog about upon my return, where I would pull certain accumulated images and impressions out of my head and write them down.  Besides the three aforementioned books, I also viewed as necessary equipment for this trip a little Dollar-Store notebook, to jot down bus arrival and departure times,  train routes, landmark markers, price of gas, distance from X to Y, restaurant and hostel addresses, etc., diagrams of possible itineraries, all of which, in the end as it turned out, proved fruitless.  (Best laid plans and all that ....)
I try to imagine some archeologist, say 500 years from now, coming across this scribbly little notebook, trying to ascertain what sort of person penned these strange jottings and what the heck it all means.  

cedar oil, mx w/ ylang-ylang & vetivert
 roadkill #12  possum (maybe beaver)
Go West 86, 3 miles
      Hernell, NY  12:11 p.m., geese!!
$6.83 plus tip/Cracker Barrel, baked fish (overcooked)
Dayton-Rochester 8-1/2 hrs by car
Cleveland-Indy Arr 4:30 a.m.  / won't work
      1/2 gas cost, $31.17 Blmt Rt 2
Exit 24A, 4 miles
rent-a-cop caught snoozing
get phonecard

hamdard, in the Dari lang. means "shared pain"
Buffalo-Toronto $19, catch Megabus 5:30 a.m to Canada
Aldous Huxley, Universal Theory of Everything (radio interview ref)
2700 yrs ago first recorded war
hostel is 2 blks from bus station, will email code for entry after 2 am, $25/night
Greyhound sucks
joggers at Budapest Park, Lake Ontario
coffee and a Cadbury chocolate bar in Kingston
check rideshare Toronto-Montreal, $30 one way  

and etc.

Riding the marvelous Megabus into Toronto, I spied a window washer (upper left side of building) and immortalized him for my blogo-memory scrapbook.  This was only my second visit to Toronto, and it was for less than 2 hours.  A city with trolley tracks and high-rise glass buildings (more glass than metal, at least to the naked eye).  Vibrant, bustling, its people scurrying about in overcoats (they were in T-shirts in Indy) with their cell phones glued to one ear, briefcase in tow, rushing to work.  And bikers!  First sight of anyone on a bicycle in 11 days. 

I don't normally do this--endorse any product or service on this blog (exception made for Dos Coronas in Macedonia)--but I have to put a plug in here for Megabus.  Their buses are fast, convenient, clean, comfortable, inexpensive and the service is outstanding.  It operates in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.  You have to purchase the ticket online.  (You can also buy them from Coach Canada at the bus terminal in Toronto, I discovered.)

Their website is here.  Check them out.

It was by far, the most pleasant portion of my long, crazy journey.  I settled into the roomy blue seat on the upper deck, sat back and dove again into the well-thumbed Book Thief.   Pure pleasure.

Some randomly jotted-down excerpts from the book:

"No final goodbye.  Nothing but goneness."   (I like that word, "Goneness").
"rain like gray pencil shavings"
character described as  "like a balding rodent"     :)
"the train screams"
 "hard times were coming--like a parade"  (the march of Poorness)
Arschgrobbler is German for ass scratcher (derog. term)
Aufmachen!  means Open up   (Aufmachen!  It's the police!)

"the irritation of half awakeness" (p. 45)   (can relate to this today!!!!)
"brute strength of the man's gentleness" ... "his thereness".      (concept of one's 'Thereness'.  Or 'Unthereness')
"pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face"  (!!  :)
Schweigen = Silence

"nightmares--like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform,
pulling the memories behind it on a rope..."
"a brief quiet ensued ..."
"her voice, lumpy from lack of use, coughed out the words"  (words 'coughed' out)
German soldiers with "the Führer in their eyes"    (the Fiery Furor of the Furious Führer)

Words as keys to unlock; as projectiles to pierce, as forces of acton:
(coughed out, rammed into, sprayed, coughed, or spit out, punched onto) --
"she rammed the words through the keyhole"
"she sprayed her words directly into the woman's eyes"
"words punched forcefully into the paper..."
Quote in middle of a chapter:
     Strings of mud clench his face.  His tie
     is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.
     His lemon, lamp-lit hair is disheveled
     and he wears a sad, absurd smile

Alles ist Scheisse - All is shit     (and sometimes it isn't)
"Hello, stars"

Addendum:  I love those stars--Zusak's fictional ones and the fake ones on my grandson's bedroom ceiling; and of course, the real ones.

Added addendum:  Apologies to any reader who has managed to plow through to the end of this Absurdly long post today, probably the longest I have ever written, or will again.  It was intended mainly as a recording of recollections for personal storage and revisiting--words and images and impressions and observations--mentally accumulated material for a dozen stories, and perhaps, someday, some poems as well.

Additional added addendum:  Mark Twain, bless his writerly soul, in writing about writing, once wrote:

"... use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them."  [- Letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880].  (The "slow creep of verbosity," ouch.)

But he also wrote:   "Well, my book is written--let it go. But if it were only to write over again there wouldn't be so many things left out.  They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can't ever be said. And besides, they would require a library--and a pen warmed up in hell."
[- Letter to W. D. Howells, 22 Sept 1889 (referring to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court)]

I know about the things left out, the unwritten writings that "burn" in you, that "keep multiplying" till you think your head will explode ... that due to the constraints of Time, or discipline, or brevity, must be held back.

How full to overflowing
the library of our Held-Back Words
our Left-out Things that burn their presence,
multiplying, Mind-bound, 
a closet of vast Unsaids,
needing a pen
"warmed up in hell", and
 the time & space & freedom
to Let Go

(with apologies to Twain, who is probably turning over in his grave at the above).

Final Added Addendum:  This is what happens when you aren't able to write for 17 days at a stretch.  opentheFloodgates.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Liu Xiaobo Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Liu Xiaobo  now joins Mynmar (Burma)'s Aung San Suu Kyi and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won the 1935 prize while jailed by the Nazis, as the only Nobel Peace Prize laureates honored while in detention.  Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on December 23, 2009, to eleven years in prison for expressing his views, in writing, critical of the Chinese government.

It's unfortunate that the Chinese government becomes so enraged when their warnings to other countries not to do certain things--like consider Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize[1]--or orders  not to honor someone (like the Dalai Lama[2]) are ignored, that retaliation is the response of choice:

"When the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland, announced the award ... the broadcast on the BBC and CNN went black ... Major mainland news portals have yet to publish news of Liu's prize ...text messages containing "Liu Xiaobo" were blocked by the major cell phone service providers.[3].

I have posted this video twice before,  here and here, and am doing so again.  The attempt to silence Xiaobo, or news about him, thank the universe, does not extend here.


for Xia

over the tall ashen wall, between
the sound of vegetables being chopped
daybreak’s bound, severed,
dissipated by a paralysis of spirit

what is the difference
between the light and the darkness
that seems to surface through my eyes’
apertures, from my seat of rust
I can’t tell if it’s the glint of chains
in the cell, or the god of nature
behind the wall
daily dissidence
makes the arrogant
sun stunned to no end

daybreak a vast emptiness
you in a far place
with nights of love stored away

 ~ ~ Liu Xiaobo

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Love October

Went to Marché Godefroy in Bécancour Saturday to check out the pumpkins.

People usually buy them to carve out and place candles inside for Halloween, or to make pumpkin pie.  But you can also just cook and eat them, same as butternut squash (minus the skins, of course), and with just a bit of butter they are superb.

At the goat cheese kiosk inside the market tent I sampled the most delicious, tiny (the size of a marble) soft  cheeseballs marinated in grapeseed oil and spices (called les boules de neige--"snowballs"). The seller called them "bites of  heaven", and indeed they were.

What I like about this area (Mauricie region of Québec) is the availability, year round, of the wonderful products of the small farms, fromageries, flour mills and craft artisans: goat milk cheese/yogurt/soap; wonderfully weaved woolly socks and mitts for our long, frigid winter; organic, stone-ground flour to make bread. 

We took a little walk in the woods nearby, past the sugar shack where they make maple syrup in the spring.  Most of the leaves were yellow or brown except this brilliant little red one peeping out from behind a tree.

first to turn
or last --
you always get noticed

This and next week is our 26th annual Festival of Poetry here in Trois-Rivières.  One hundred poets from five continents come to town for ten days to read their poems in over 375 events, many occurring simultaneously, in coffee shops, restaurants, schools, libraries, art houses, cinemas and outside in the park. Booklets listing all the readings and venues help you navigate the where and when if there's a particular poet you want to follow.  The readings are almost all in French.   This is a familiar sight every October (below):

Those things hanging on the lines strung across Champlain Park are sheets of poems held up by clothespins.  The poems are both from known poets and from school children.  It may be, in some cases, the first introduction to poetry a passerby has ever had. 

Most of the children's poems this year had to do with sports, their pet, the seasons, or friendship, and many were illustrated.  One particularly caught my attention, not for its odd drawing but for its one-line poem penciled directly beneath it. The drawing was of a person's head with floaty, twirly tendrils emanating out from it, followed by the words  "Poesie ... quand tu nous tiens" (literally: "Poetry ... when you hold us").  What the kid was really saying, it seemed to me, was:  "Poetry ... you got me hooked."

Readers are encouraged to submit their own poems and a special section has been set apart for just that purpose.

"Insert your poem here!"

Only one person, apparently, had accepted the invitation--at least the morning I passed by them--a visitor from France, with a handwritten poem gushing with exclamation points about "Les mots!" ("Words!"), how beautiful they were, how profound, how true, etc., echoing the sentiments, perhaps, of the unknown child poet above.  Whether you love it or hate it, or are merely indifferent to it, poetry spreads itself, regardless.  It finds certain people, or certain readers find IT.

The park is next to the city library and Museum of Culture.    I stopped by the Museum before heading off to one of the poetry readings to look at the current exhibit.

 This piece is by Steven Renald, a mail artist and it's called "à la recherche du temps perdu 2009-2010"  (In Search of Lost Time, 2009-2010").  It's constructed entirely of paper.  A bodiless jacket, dragging behind (or trying to escape from) a long skirt made of stamped envelopes and posted letters. Am not sure what this means.  I had no time to read the lengthy explanation posted nearby in French at the side of the exhibit. (Man in a hurry, leaving himself behind; communication not enough to halt his journey?)  I had never heard the term "mail artist" before.

When I came out, there was a discussion ongoing in the foyer with panelists from France, Morocco, Martinique, Peru, Ontario and the U.S. about the situation of poetry in different countries.  Unfortunately, the reading I'd planned to attend at Café Zenob at noon a few blocks away was happening at exactly the same time.  That's the problem with having several events all taking place simultaneously in different places; you just can't get to all the ones you'd like to.  I did get a chance, however, to speak with Monique LaForce (a poet from Québec City) who put me in touch with her translator, a fellow American.

Off to rue des Ursulines, one of my favorite parts of town for another reading event, at an art gallery. The slim little booklet giving the schedules, venues, maps and information about each event is 103 pages long.  There were 36 different events scheduled just for today, from 10 A.M. to 11 P.M.   I will be coming back again on Tuesday and Friday to hear certain other poets.

Brought a peanut butter sandwich, a thermos of tea, and an apple for lunch and walked down near the port, which is about a three-minute walk to the right of the church, down a little hill.  My first introduction to this charming area was in the dead of winter, and I got stuck in a snowbank up to my knees.

Later in the afternoon, standing at this railing overlooking the waterfront watching two big ships gliding down the St. Lawrence, I heard someone on the bench behind me plucking on a guitar.

 The guy on the left was trying to coordinate a song in Spanish with the girl in the middle.  They both took turns singing; while their friend on the right accompanied them.

All in all, a wonderful October afternoon.

Just before returning home, at the bus stop, I spied a most curious thing on the sidewalk.

Two shadows

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Thank you, Bookeywookey

for introducing me to Wislawa Szymborska. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.  What was I doing in 1996 and before, that I'd never become aware of her poems? That 14 years later, a random search for something quite other leads me to a link that led to Szymborska. What a wonderful gift this morning.


If there are angels,
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I'm afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off duty, between angelic -
i.e. inhuman - occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I'm sure
that's what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger's eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.


a bumptious, stuck-up word.
It should be written in quotes.
It pretends to miss nothing,
to gather, hold, contain, and have.
While all the while it's just
a shred of a gale.

Some Like Poetry

Some -
thus not all. Not even the majority of all but the minority.
Not counting schools, where one has to,
and the poets themselves,
there might be two people per thousand.

Like -
but one also likes chicken soup with noodles,
one likes compliments and the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes having the upper hand,
one likes stroking a dog.

Poetry -
but what is poetry.
Many shaky answers
have been given to this question.
But I don't know and don't know and hold on to it
like to a sustaining railing.

The Joy Of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods." Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

~ ~ Wislawa Szymborska

I love that image, "Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page/are letters up to no good".

The blog posting, from 2007, that introduced me to this fine poet this morning, is from blogger Ted over at Bookeywookey, where he writes on "literature, good and bad, theatre, and neuroscience ... no, really". 

To read more samples of Szymborska's poetry, click here (10 poems) and here (50 poems).