Requiem: moving mountains #1

There were 4 of us, ages 11-13. I was eldest, there for the summer. The younger kids were my two uncles and my aunt. (I know – hill people.) We had climbed onto the roof of the wagon shed. The corrugated tin was hot under our feet. There had been a dance down at the hall the night before. It was too wonderful to let go, so we were putting on a show. We had sneaked out the potato masher and a wooden spoon for microphones. I was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico way’. Evelyn was backup because, honestly, she couldn’t carry a tune. Ted was on air guitar, twanging away and Percy was battering the roof with 2 sticks. I got to the sad part, “The mission bells told me that I could not stay.”

Hereford Mountain hunched over behind the corn field and the Old Place.

I was happy, really happy.

“Whaaat?” my grandmother screeched as she came around the corner. “Get down from there before you break your necks. And give me the masher. I need it. The men will be back for dinner.”

Mountains don’t move, not even for Mohammed. Hills don’t give up farming to find work in a steel mill. Hereford Mountain is still there, although it has a bike trail up from the East Hereford side. There’s a new vacation house out back of Bungee, snugged up under the mountain’s shoulder. The road to this dead-end has been improved. There is a pond.

But Hereford is gone.

The 10 farms that climbed up from river valley are turned into tree plantations or rental properties. The sunny hay fields are now mostly dark and foreboding, thick with tall spruce. Perhaps some dairy farmer out from the prosperous wide valley is still taking hay from the old Owen place.

Those hills were great for farming stone. They yielded an excellent crop every spring, but never more than one crop of hay. The top soil was thin having been scraped off and washed into the valley. The Owens who came to Plymouth on the Hopewell, 3 ships after the Mayflower, had too many surviving sons. My great great (about 1825) migrated north to these bony hills and set to work chopping down trees and hefting stones, starving and working themselves to death.

I joined them in 1936, arriving in a tiny backwoods house -out around the Horn- with no electricity, running water or telephone. No horse but shanks’ mare. A woodstove in the kitchen. The good news was that my father had worked at pulp logging all winter and saved up $18 for the doctor to deliver me. He brought ‘twilight sleep’ for my hysterical 19-year-old mother. My Aunt Mae, perfectly capable of delivering a baby and possibly more adept than the doctor and his bag, stood by. All she had by way of anesthetic was raspberry tea, laughter and Jesus.

The last time I went back was 8 years ago, a birthday treat for my younger sister, Georgia, on her 70th. We stayed at the Ayres Cliff Inn as if we were rich people. On the way home to Toronto, we realized we could not go back. One of us had a back spasm and both of us never wanted to get behind the wheel of a car again.

Last weekend, Georgia, thanks to DNA testing and Facebook found Julie, whose mother Rose grew up on the hill. Thus I learned that the only survivor of the people I knew is Rose’s 97-year-old father. One or two of my Aunt Mae’s grandsons may still be there, but I didn’t know them. All my mother’s 6 siblings are gone. Most had died in Ontario where she had, and of cancer as she had. They had all worked in steel or aluminum. Evelyn and Ted had crossed the border to work in the U.S. They had been born there in 1937 in a hospital because of the risk with twins. I had felt Ted was gone, but not Evelyn, yet she had in 2013. The last of the old people, the previous generation, Julie’s aunt, her husband and his brother, Ron, another Owen uncle, had died since 2019. These were the people I had last contacted. I had learned then that our favourite, Ron had dementia and was in a home.

I left there almost 80 years ago. Or rather, we escaped. Afterwards, we sometimes were hungry but never starved. I wish I could say we left the worst of hill life behind, but I can’t because we still had Dad. Hereford Hill breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone no doubt. Gradually uncles and other folk followed in our tracks and tried to create the good old days, plus readily available booze and the odd mob contract to supplement income.

So this week, as well as facing democracy’s destruction and rising Covid figures, I bade farewell to the beauty and joy and awfulness of hill life. Ave atque vale!

See also https://115journals.com/2018/03/01/hillbilly-elegy-a-personal-reflection/
https://115journals.com/2018/03/04/hillbilly-elegy-reflection-2/

A Hundred Days of Solitude: chpt 3

The View -day after day- from my tower. (Taken after the Snowbirds, flew over to cheer us up, peutetre)

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family, which founded the riverside town on Macondo in the jungle of Columbia. In the first generation the isolated town has no outside contact except for an annual visit from a Gypsy band. It is a place where the inexplicable can happen and ghosts are commonplace. Many misfortunes befall the Buedias, all of which it turns out have been predicted. It is a long book, perfect if you are still, like me, a coronavirus shut-in.

********

 HANK WILLIAM’S ADVICE

I asked Hank Williams, how lonely can it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet,
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song. (Leonard Cohen)

My tower is actually named after a British city and it doesn’t have that many stories. I don’t write songs, but I could perhaps answer the question.

In the beginning, I actually feel lonely, abandoned, bereft. Sometimes I cry. Once or twice I howl. By Easter that has pretty well stopped. I am like the baby who figures out crying is useless.

Day 31: Easter arrives while it is still hard lock-down. Although I’m not a church-going Christian, I am still a cultural one. Easter is the most important church festival. It has always been a family time. My sister’s family is large with children of all ages. We usually drive north to Barrie where the long table is loaded with every vegetable available and roast ham. There is wine and laughter.

This year my sister, my niece and I are in our separate dwellings a few blocks apart. My niece has a sore throat. She is isolating to protect her mother. Normally, they treat each other as a family cohabiting. I order dessert from Sweet Things. The Door Dash delivery guy even comes up to the 14th floor. I drive to my sister’s, call her, she comes down in her N95 mask and I hand two desserts to her.  I come home and eat my key lime pie.

At a certain point, I feel so unseen that I am disappearing.

Day 2 – Day infinity: What to do? What to do?

The eastern sages that live in caves advise us that even the contemplative life must have a routine. I can do that, I think. I go to sleep at midnight, after reading in bed for an hour or more. I get up at 8. I pull myself together. I exercise as much as my body and a 950 Sq. ft. apartment permits. I eat breakfast while I read the news on my phone.

The rest of the day? What was I doing before? I was actually writing two books, a second memoir following Never Tell and a second mystery following Hour of the Hawk. The original two need to be marketed on line. https://www.joycehowe.com/books Many people are reading e-books with libraries closed. So go for it! Are you kidding? The world is ending, at least the world as we knew it. Why does it need another memoir of my abusive birth family? And now that woman has been pushed off a cliff in Kern County in my second mystery, I have no idea who did it? It took two people to get rid of her car, but what two people?

I’ve furloughed my cleaner. She also works in an essential retail store. So I have to do my own cleaning. It takes her 2 hours. It takes me 2 hours times 4 days. But I celebrate that I can do it at all and thank Cymbalta. I also decide my sister is right – an ironed pillow case is divine. The next thing I know I am ironing sheets and shirts and masks. Stop now!

I watch television. At first CNN is on all day. At lunch and dinner I watch Netflix, a documentary called Pandemic, which shows in six parts how ” tireless doctors and scientists” have been working for many years to learn how to make a vaccine for novo viruses. Each episode is episodic featuring several teams and one home-schooling anti-vaxxer and her many children. I take a vow to have the flu shot this year. I stopped getting shots because they make me sick, possibly because they are egg based. But this year, I’ll put up with that AND I will get a Covid shot as soon as I can. The scientists in the show spend a lot of time in full gear in bat caves. In general, it builds confidence, especially in Bill Gates’ money. I also watch Tiger King. God help me! Then I turn from Netflix to Acorn, which streams British, Australian and New Zealand shows. I love a good mystery. Whereas Netflix has taught me German, Finnish, Swedish and Russian, I learn Welsh English, even Welsh, Cornish, Irish and heavy, heavy Scots. I already knew how to decipher Australian and Kiwi.

I read. On the serious side, I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The power of introverts. Probably I’m an introvert at heart. I needed to rest up after a day in the classroom before I could get dinner and relate to my family; however, I was able to avail myself of the ‘free trait’ and act out of character on the stage or in front of a class or even at dinner. Being introverted is an excellent trait to have when you have to stay home for months.

I frog march myself through John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened, bending my brain around references to American foreign policy. I am testing a theory – is Donald Trump as incompetent as he seems. Then I read Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. Even without his suggestion that we ingest bleach to cure Covid, these two books confirm my opinion. I am terrified of coronavirus, and I am terrified of this man knowing the nuclear codes. As time goes on and the U.S. cases start to climb in Florida, Arizona, California again and Texas – oh my babies – the two anxieties come together.

I trade mystery titles with my California daughter and find them on my library’s website. I run through all of Mick Heron’s MI 5 books, which are satirical and funny and intriguing and sad. https://115journals.com/2020/04/19/slow-time-slow-horses-the-slough-house-spies/ I write a blog post about them. I read the SoHo mysteries, set in different countries: Thomas Perry, Dan Fesperson, Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Mark Pryor, Colin Cotterill, Stuart Neville, and thus I travel to the British Isles, Germany, Russia, the U.S., Thailand, Laos. I read to rest during housework or cooking, but the last hour of the day is sacrosanct reading time and I end up lying my head down at midnight.

I don’t know Alice. What was the question?

As Alice lay dying, she seized Gertrude Stein’s hand and said, “Oh, Gertrude, what is the answer?” Gertrude replied, “I don’t know, Alice. What was the question?”

Then there is Leonard Cohen’s answer in The Tower of Song, “Dum de dum dum, de de dum dum.”

Alice wanted to know the meaning of life. Curiously, that becomes an urgent question as we contemplate death.  Part of what Aunt Mae taught my sister and me was that a person could have several possible exit dates. I have had a few close calls, which led me to read Robert Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama and Rumi. Now the shocking death tolls in our local long term care homes wake me up.

I had forgotten.

I know the way back – gratitude for the helpers, who are risking their lives and dying to help the sick, empathy for the dead and the dying and the ill – all isolated from their family’s support. I can leap on that train and ride it until I disappear into a universal cloud of love. In the morning, energy too low for that, I recite the Twenty Third Psalm by King David, for whom I named my son. Especially the last lines ground me:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies
Thou annointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

A Hundred Days of Solitude still to come – those darned visions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something Arrived: covid gives way to chaos

Look The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe 1982

My last blog post was called Nothing Arrived after the Villagers’ song https://115journals.com/2020/05/14/nothing-arrived-day-64-of-lockdown/

It turns out I only had to wait. Eventually 3 cloth masks arrived from the veterinary supply store, not quite as advertised but that’s understandable – not that veterinarians had much call for them on day 70, but the rest of us did. I also received a book from Amazon –Dead Lions by Mick Herron, a birthday gift for my niece, long overdue because it had been circling the eastern half of the continent. And Land’s End sped a summer dress to me, so I could survive my south-facing apartment. Best of all, a new news cycle arrived. Suddenly, instead of watching the death count in the U.S. rolling past 100,000, I got to see burning buildings and looted stores on Melrose. Melrose!! Stay the F away from my eye glass! store.

I caught no glimpse of my grandson in the LA march. He knew better than to be there, I told myself. I called him after midnight. He had just got back. He had been shot by ‘rubber’ bullets three times, one in the chest, but he was carrying his backpack there. One in his foot, which was bleeding, and one missed his face, on which he was wearing a gas mask. He absolutely had to be there, he said. It was his responsibility as a citizen. I didn’t argue. I just whined like an old granny – wait a minute – about live bullets coming next.

“Do over. Do over,” I cried to the gods. I’ll go back to nothing arriving. Please. Yes, I believe in equal justice. I hate fascism. I fought it as a child, dragging a wagon of tin and rancid fat and paper to school. Don’t you just have to do that once?

So I lit a candle to Kwan Yin and Buddha. I have to give some credit to George Floyd’s relatives who appealed for the violence to stop, but I don’t discount my Taoist saints. It did stop – except for the cops who battered girls riding bikes and tasered students out looking for a snack and  crushed news photographers with their shields and pushed old men over to crack their skulls. But, by and large, no more stealing small appliances or burning auto supply stores.

It wasn’t until grandson phoned me on his birthday that I found out he had stopped marching. Too dangerous.

So shut up here in my tower like the Lady of Shallot, I indulge in magical thinking. If I ‘pray’/think hard enough things can change. Some people march in large crowds and refuse to obey police commends, cf grandson, while some people light candles and think hard. If only… justice would be universal and Trump would lose his voice. Pretty sure he can’t write except his signature.

So today, the march in D.C. is going to be bigger than ever, despite the baby gate around Lafayette Park, along more than the two blocks that read ‘Black lives matter’ from the Space station probably. And there will be marches across the States, here in Canada and around the world.

I’m not black. I was -and am- white trash, a hillbilly from the Eastern Townships. In those days, the French held power in Quebec. The French held the mortgage on our farm. Grandpa Willy had defaulted. My father took it on. At first he took me with him to hand over what cash he could pay. Dad’s talent with fire must have been a concern for Monsieur Mortgage Holder. Dad was always first to show to put out the flames in a barn.

It’s not the same. I didn’t have to worry about my black son being shot. They just put my white uppity hippy white son in the cruiser and did a suspect parade of one. “Not him,” said the lady.

And I had a long career, passing as a normal, respectable, more or less middle class teacher. But I lived by a code. Never call the police. Stay out of hospitals. Don’t mess with city hall or the government. Keep your head down. Lucky me! My skin doesn’t advertise my difference.

Slow Time, Slow Horses: the Slough House spies

Fortunately, I trained early in the art of solitude. Until I was 5, I was an only child on a farm in the mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Our land produced a reliable crop of stones every year, just enough hay to keep the cows going and a few hardy vegetables. Without electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing, I had only my imagination to entertain me. It has come in handy in the past two months.

I know the Covid-19 shut down has theoretically lasted only 5 weeks or so, but I was shut in by debilitating dizziness and nausea for most of February, so thank you early childhood.

Once we moved to town and I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much. It wasn’t until we moved to the city at the end of the war that I laid hands on library books. Then my ingrained solitary self could live happily in worlds populated by imaginary people.

For 2 1/2 months, I have lived surrounded by the slow horses, exiles from the British Secret Service (MI5), banished across the Thames to rundown Slough House in the hope that mind-numbing clerical work will force them to quit.

I discovered Mick Herron’s Slough House series when I searched the e-book catalogue of my local library for the Soho Mysteries. I had already read many of these books including the Cara Black mysteries set in Paris, David Downing’s set across Europe and South Asia and Dan Fesperson’s also European in setting.

Herron is English, an Oxford alumnus. He worked as an editor and never, he is quick to say as a spy, unlike many well-known spy novelists like Le Carre. As a result, he feels free to invent. His ‘slow horses’ are rejects from the MI5 head-quartered in Regent Park, London. Each of them has failed in their training or their service, some spectacularly, but, for one reason or another, cannot be fired outright.

River Cartwright, for example is the grandson of David Cartwright, fondly known as OB (Old Bastard) and formerly #2 in the Service. River ‘crashed’ King’s Cross subway station during the evening rush causing the entire system to shut down for hours. Theoretically. By failing to capture the ‘suicide terrorist’. In fact commuters carried on blissfully unaware of their fate. It was a training test.

Other insubstantial inhabitants of my 14th floor apartment included Bad Sam Chapman, disgraced head Dog (security) of the Service; alcoholic Catherine Standish, former assistant to #1, whose body she discovered, fighting her addiction a day at a time; Louisa Guy, the most competent of the lot; Min Harper, who left a top-secret disc on a subway seat; Roddy Ho, computer genius and social moron; Marcus Longridge, an inveterate gambler; J.K. Coe, PTSD victim who finds stress relief in killing people; Moira Tregorian, who has no idea why she has been sent there: Lech (Alec) Wicinski, who absolutely did not access child pornography on his work computer; Sid Baker -is she a plant and what really happens to her; Shirley Dander, cocaine addict and one-woman army and Jackson Lamb. Lamb drinks, smokes, and farts at his desk, never washes, and, generally breaks each and every politically correct convention there is going, inflicts pain and suffering on his staff, for he is indeed the head of Slough House. For his sins or possibly for his achievements. On the other hand, he will not suffer anyone one else to harm his joes.

A joe is an agent in the field. Slow horses are no longer permitted to mount ops, to undertake operations. They are to stick to their book work, their computer drudgery on their outdated equipment, but every so often an op is forced upon them by circumstances, when someone is intent on murdering Roddy Ho, for example, or someone kidnaps Catherine, or Min’s teenage son goes missing. The list goes on.

They are all inept, not a James Bond in the bunch. Quite a few of them get eliminated by their much more cunning adversaries. What they lack in effectiveness, they make up for in spirit. Some deaths are heroic, some are chance and some are just plain stupid. Even though they can’t stand each other in the office, they throw themselves bodily into the fray when a fellow slow horse is in danger. And Jackson Lamb, who often seems to be missing in action, is usually meeting Regent Park’s #1 or #2 with enough blackmail to protect his people from ‘friendly fire’. You may hear him snoring, but don’t assume he is sleeping on the job.

The books are mysteries, yes, but they are also funny, partly because of their absurdity but also because of their wit. Jackson Lamb dismisses Brexit, “I’ve read more convincing lies on the side of a bus.” And “Except the cold war didn’t end. It just hid behind closed doors like Trump in a tantrum.”

The series begins with Slow Horses, in which a kidnapped Muslim boy is due to be beheaded on-line. Dead Lions harks back to the Old Bastard’s glory days, a possibly mythical Soviet spy and a very long term sleeper cell. Real Tigers involves a para-military group coercing the slow horses into handing over secret information. Spook Street centers on River and his grandfather and a curious commune in France with children but no female residents. London Rules focuses on British politics and elucidates the rules of spydom there as opposed to Moscow rules; London rules include ‘Cover your arse’ and ‘Stick together until you can’t.’ Joe Country is a Brexit era novel with a character who may well be a pre-covid Boris Johnson, its thrilling final action set in wintry Wales. There are also several novellas, including The List -after Dead Lions, Nobody Walks -after it, The Drop before Joe Country and The Last Dead Letter after it as well as The Catch. These shorter works may refer to Slough House but center on other characters.

Herron has also written several novels featuring Zoe Boehm, a private detective, another down at the heels protagonist.

For a glossary of terms, characters and places used in the Slough House books see https:spywrite.com/2018/07/04mick-herron-slough-house, which would be particularly helpful if you read the books out of order.

 

 

Winter Came: aging in a cold climate

From The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

He (Bruzek) handed it back. Then, with a grimace and a groan, he worked himself into a more upright position.

“Please help me to stand. I would feel much more comfortable speaking to you from behind my desk.”

I took his arm and helped him across the room to a ladder-back chair behind a huge mahogany desk. Behind it was a wall of bookshelves, stuffed full and leaning slightly, as if they might fall at any moment.
p 313 in my overdrive program on my ipad.

I had to recline as Vlacek Bruzek was doing when Bill Cage wound his way up through the antiquarian book store in Prague to ask him questions about spy couriers during the cold war.

I had to recline and pick up Fesperman’s book because I was exhausted. It was 11 a.m. and I was exhausted because the superintendent had called to tell me to move my car for the snow plow. The older woman -only in her late 60s next to my car – was trying in vain to defrost her windows and clear the 8 inches of snow. Fortunately, I had done that the day before and had by now recovered from that exertion.

It’s worth noting that I am so old this woman is solicitous of me.

Twenty minutes later, I had to put on my boots, my furry aviator’s hat and my -30C hooded coat and go back down to relocate my Corolla. (Full disclosure the windchill was only -15, but old bodies are cold bodies.)

That was it. I was barely able to make Masala chai before I had to rest.

I never expected to grow old. Too many close calls and a mother who passed at 58. But here I am, not yet old old. Yes, it’s a thing. In less than 2 more years I will be 85 and old old. My grandmother lived to be 96, so I guess I have to follow a new paradigm.

I suppose I should remind you that if you are lucky, you too will get there. If you’re already there, you know the truth that Leonard Cohen said, ‘You can’t reveal to the innocent youth.’ Part of that truth seems to be that for every half hour of effort it is necessary to rest 30 minutes. I mean I had to go down 13 floors in an elevator, walk 50 yards, get into my car and drive it to Visitors’ parking. How can that be exhausting?

Our bodies all age differently, of course, so perhaps yours is/will be different. If your mind can’t accept that resting routine, you have to numb it down with – preferably -‘stupid’ TV. HGTV works for me, but recently my Bell TV service has been down more than up, so I turned to Fesperson’s books. These are smart books by the way. Whereas I can’t use CNN to rest with, I can use complicated books with good mysteries.

I don’t have many old friends.One, my ex-husband, Blake, passed last March as I have documented in previous blogs. https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/ My sister Georgia is 6-years younger and just beginning to feel the effort/rest effect. Another friend who is 91 has recently changed dramatically, developing an edge. She was always able to keep me believing she was charming and sweet and cared deeply for me and my loved ones. Then in one single angry outburst laid waste to that idea. Blake had also become irascible in his last days, We all forgave him as we sat beside his bed of pain. Until we had to deal with the twenty years of neglect of home and finances he left behind.

Apparently, we should all assume that our brains are de-myolinating as we age and expect dementia. I’ve got Lion’s Mane mushrooms in capsule on order. fungi.com

An older real estate collapse you don’t even remember in 1995 bumped me out of home ownership. Three years ago, my landlord sold the triplex where I lived on the ground floor in a Toronto neighbourhood I had come to love. Rent increases made it necessary for me to get out of town and at my sister’s encouragement I moved to an apartment in Mississauga. It is warm – often equatorial, even in winter, well-maintained -although the elevators can be chancey, and safe – interlopers are scared of our Shanti in the front office. First responders will be able to stretcher me out and down.

At Blake’s three-story townhouse in Cabbagetown, they had to carry him bodily down the twisty, narrow stairs. He never did get set up with a hospital bed and a potty on the first floor.

So that’s been dealt with. The fact that I really am not a suburb lover can’t matter now. Anyway I am learning to love the sky in all its moods and the distant glimpse of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment where the clouds are different.

According to my mandatory driver assessments, I am able to drive. That could change or it could gradually dawn on me that spending over $500 a month on a car is too much what with the pressure of rent increases and Bell increases. Grocery delivery, Uber and patience may win out.

It’s new territory and Tennyson’s Ulysses has advised me to “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses

 

Interlude: between two all-is-wells

This post is an interlude or intermission between my last blog post “All Is Well” and my next one “All Is Well: part 2”.

https://115journals.com/2018/10/06/all-is-well-another-contradiction-to-despair/

So Edgar comes on stage in Act 4, scene 1 of King Lear, disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom. He is all but naked and covered in mud, a disguise to prevent his capture and execution. His illegitimate brother Edmund has framed him, convincing their father, the Duke of Gloucester, that Edgar is plotting to commit patricide.

Let us note that Edgar actually loves his misguided father very much.

Edgar is out on the heath, the treeless moor, as a vicious storm gathers. He says a few words reconciling himself to his abject state, when suddenly an old man leads Gloucester into view. Gloucester is blind. His eyes have just been gouged out by Cornwall, Edmund’s ally.

Edgar says, “Oh gods! Who is it can say ‘I am at the worst’.? I am worse than e’er I was.”….
“And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.

The Old Man wisely hands blind Gloucester over to Poor Tom, for in aiding the Duke, the Old Man is risking his own life.

Gloucester observes “Tis the times plague when madmen lead the blind.”

(Let’s ignore the relevance of that remark to our own time.)

In other words, in my earlier blog post “All Is Well: another contradiction to despair”, I got myself all wound up about what seemed to be the worst possible circumstances. It took only a few days for life to teach me otherwise.

It will take a few more for me to process this new insight enough to write “All Is Well: part 2”.

As usual, I will draw on my sister Georgia’s support. She is gobsmacked by events as well, but no less convinced than she ever was that, to qoute Hildegard of BIngem, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

The #%*$ universe is unfolding as it should.

What I Once Knew: Anglo Saxon, Algebra and The Luminaries

Once upon a time, I could read old English, by which I mean of course, Anglo Saxon. I read Beowulf and poetry with internal rhyme. (Don’t ask.) I had to do that in order to earn an English degree. Either before of after that I could read Middle English and The Canterbury Tales. In the original!

I’m not bragging. I didn’t much enjoy doing either. I slogged through in the summer heat at the University of Toronto, running home each night to two toddlers and a stoic husband, who washed dishes.

I mention these reading skills because I have recently been reminded of another amazing achievement of reading comprehension. I once understood Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

Or at least I pretended to.

I wrote 3 blog posts about it, a review – in which I announced that I was about to start reading it all over again, https://115journals.com/2014/03/27/the-luminaries-eleanor-cattons-booker-prize-winning-novel/ a timeline of events https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminarie and a timeline about the trove of gold https://115journals.com/2014/04/14/deconstructing-the-luminaries-2-the-gold-trail/. I was reminded of these posts when another blogger referred to them yesterday. https://siowyookpeng.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/the-luminaries/

The bad news is I cannot now understand the posts, never mind the actual novel.

I had suspected this for a while because I could no longer answer questions posed by readers of these posts, but now I know for sure.

Really it was a waste of time for me to reread them, but I was waiting for my nails to dry.

I admit that I have also lost much of my French vocabulary, my Latin declensions, and all my algebra, except that joke – Stop asking us to find your ex; she’s not coming back and don’t ask why.

Use it or lose it.

Which doesn’t explain why I can’t remember the password for that damned Movie-Frame account I am trying to cancel before the free days run out.

For easier reading, try Hour of the Hawk, a Joanna Hunter Mystery https://www.joycehowe.com/

Drunkenness: probably NOT a contradiction to despair

It’s quarter after 3 and there’s no one in the place
‘cept you and me
So set ’em Joe
I got a little story I think you oughtta know….. (Harold Arlen/Johney Mercer)

(Frank Sinatra,melancholy, on a bar stool -the apotheosis of melancholy, too romantic to be despair. Tears in my beers).

It was quarter to 4, when I woke up. It’s inching toward 5:15 dawn now. No big deal. A friend of mine hasn’t really slept for six months. I just logged 4 hours. She sometimes gets only 2, although there are signs she’s moving out of Winston Churchill territory. Five hours seems doable to her now.

What better time than the tail-end of the night to contemplate drunkenness.

For the past few days of global chaos, I have been reading Ken Bruen’s last two Jack Taylor crime novels, The Emerald Lie and The Ghosts of Galway. When I say ‘last’, I mean adieu Jacko, at least that’s what the author has implied in interviews. From the condition of the man, it’s no wonder. He has suffered so many vicious attacks as a Guard and a private eye that he is a physical wreck -lame, deaf, with mutilated fingers, and a heart full of grief. All of his friends and even his dogs meet dreadful ends because of him. Well, not even Bruen is heartless enough to eliminate every last one. Maybe there is a short story that will clear up the oversight. Jack drinks! He likes a Guinness and a Jameson chaser. He likes the Guinness built just right. In the right mood, he can lose months of his life to these libations and then months more to the aftermath.

He can’t go into a bar without someone, usually a woman, with a wad of cash, sidling up to him and saying, “You’re Jack Taylor.” It may be a simple job, like ‘find my lost brother’ -who is entirely fictional, but more often as time has gone on, it has been ‘Look what this bastard did to my girl. Get me some payback.” Payback gets gotten, although not always by Jack. Jack’s a hurley stick man, but others in his orbit use more lethal means.

Jack is a good man, his landlady says early on and his good friend, the outside nun, later on. He is a keen man for justice, humanized by reading and music and his love of dogs and swans. He has been hardened by his “walking bitch of a mother with her tame priest”, by the corruption of the church and  the government, by the miserable poverty attendant on the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and, perhaps most of all, by the water tax.

Suffice to say Bruen knows from PTSD.

The Irish have a reputation for enjoying a drop. I do not say drunkenness. Who am I to judge? I lived with Connor for many years. He gave up martinis every Lent. I lived in hell for 40 days each spring. I have a beloved relative, Colin, who is more sensible and less church-ridden. He says of his year-round habit, “Mostly ice,” as he pours his Bombay Gin. Vermouth doesn’t even get to breathe on the glass. Both get loquacious, even argumentative. I got many a cooking lesson in front of guests from Connor. Neither fall down or pass out or miss work.

I find it hard to read the Joe Nesbo books where Harry Hole descends into drunkenness and heroin. But then some experiences have to be first hand: sex is another one. And Harry is needed sober and strong back in Norway.

College binge drinking lost its glow for me before I got out of high school. Just that one, totally horrible, unable-to-feel-appendages experience put me right off. The stag and doe parties that I see depicted on Brit telly and which apparently happen here as well are not my cup of booze. I also had a terrible experience with a brownie on my niece’s 50th. That  limited my appreciation of getting high for good and all.

I know I drink too much wine for a person of my age and constitution. A 6-oz-glass puts me in legal jeopardy, although drinking in solves that problem. Drinking alone? Get real.

(A librarian once told my daughter never to eat while reading. My daughter was outraged, “You have to eat, you know.)

So the flaming world is falling apart. The leader of the free part is tailoring his actions to please 30% of his country. They don’t seem to be terribly well-informed about historical precedent. They don’t seem to know much geography and certainly even less economic theory than the rest of us. Which is saying something! They can’t tell a good guy (Canada) from a bad guy ( Russia). They claim to be helpless to prevent child massacres on their home soil. To them, children separated from parents and locked in what sure do look like kennels if not cages, brought that on themselves, and can damn well show up in court to coo or babble their own defense – in Spanish.

Who wouldn’t drink?

The most drunken person I ever met was my Aunt Mae. She was drunk on the love of Jesus, and joyfully swept all and sundry up in her ecstasy. Also she wouldn’t say no to a nip of brandy.

Jesus and I fell out one time.

Yet I know that what woke me up this night and what is keeping me awake is fear and self-restraint and that the answer is release.

Coleman Barks organizes some of Rumi’s poems into ‘Tavern Madness’ in Rumi: the Book of Love. The tavern is a place where passion breaks loose, an excited place where one is out of one’s mind, with others.There is the shared sense of the presence flowing through. We are connected. We are one, present and absent at the same time. I love the poem that says
I didn’t come here of my own accord
And I can’t leave that way
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.


It reminds me that something has charge over me. Whatever that is will see me safe home.When I read that, I remember I am not alone in passion or rage or goodness or hope or despair or terror. Whether what holds us together is DNA or Soul, it is universal and wise enough, drunken enough, to triumph.

In the meanwhile raise a glass – soda water with or without lemon will do. Drunkenness, O Necessarily Sober One, is fundamentally not about alcohol.

(Full disclosure: my biological grandfather, who hailed from the Emerald Isle, died syphilitic  in New Hampshire madhouse. But may have been teetotal.)

 

 

 

 

Wine, Women and Song: contradiction to despair #6

So Apollo and Bacchus walked into a bar….

Well, actually, I walked into a bar. I was fleeing despair.

This particular stumble into the abyss was occasioned by a lost load of laundry. I hadn’t realized it was lost for a week. When I inquired about Lost and Found, I discovered my apartment building didn’t have one, but I might find my clothes in the laundry room garbage container. That’s where they were, down at the bottom of a bin big enough to hide my entire body. And half full of lint, empty detergent bottles and other nasty bits. I leaned in and liberated the garments, one by one, bare-handed.

I have owned three washers in my life and just as many dryers, I suppose. No longer. Another proof that I can not now count myself among the middle class. So what? So – the lower classes live at the behest of others, especially landlords and their agents, the dreaded resident Superintendent couple.

So I took myself to Shoeless Joe’s, my local franchised watering hole. I ordered a glass of white and a burger with salad, and opened Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. A certain kind of poetry can bring me out of a funk if I persist at it. Leonard published this book in 2007 after he came down from Mount Baldi and gave up his munkish pursuit of enlightenment. Around this time, he discovered he had been robbed blind, although I doubt he found himself losing a load of wash in a laundry room. Or failing to realize that for a week.

So Apollo, Greek God of poetry sat beside me, in the guise of my friend Leonard. (See https://115journals.com/2018/03/08/leonard-and-i/ ‎) A dear friend had bought me this book at Shakespeare and Company across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I started reading again from the beginning.

When I drink
the $300 scotch
with Roshi
it quenches every thirst
a woman lies down with me

A high-pitched shriek breaks in. It is a sports bar. The world cup of soccer, FIFA, is happening in Europe. No, all visible screens are showing golf – a guy putting a ball not very close to a hole. A NASCAR interview. What must be a hockey replay.

I try another poem:

You’d sing too
if you found yourself
in a place like this
….

Several screams of delight, not all female. The bar itself is rectangular. I am sitting at a two-person booth at one corner. The screamers must have their backs to me. Suddenly, a woman in a tight white dress showing a lot of back skin, throws both arms straight up and utters another bacchanalian shout of joy. What!!! She turns and throws her arms around the guy on her right, kisses his neck and says, “I love you.”

My food arrives. I let the book fall shut as I begin to eat. I observe the crowd. On the left of the woman is a thin man in his late 50s with a moustache. Beside him is a First Nations fellow wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, sleeves cut to show off his muscles and tats. Closer to me is another thin, late 50s man with a grey moustache, who could be a twin to the one on the left. Around the corner is a guy, who doesn’t look like the shrieking type with his buxom lady. There are 3 or 4 more, apparently all part of the same constellation.

No one is watching television, yet every so often one or another erupts in a shriek, although only the woman in white throws up her arms in true I’m-having-a-G.D.-good-time fashion. When she does, she shows off her little pot belly.

I’m a proponent of non-age-appropriate clothes. At my advanced age, I am wearing an Alice-in-Wonderland straw hat. In a bar. Wear what you can get away with. This girl is pushing the limit, sartorially and otherwise.

It is a fluid group. Women go out to the patio, leaving their purses hanging on the back of the bar stools. Guys wander over to other guys, clasp them in fond embraces, assure each other of their love and exchange neck smooches.

Wait a minute! I’m in Meadowvale. I am in one of the squarest suburbs in the square city of Mississauga on the western edge of Toronto, which is not square only on Pride Weekend, which has come and gone.

The non-shrieking guy collects one of the abandoned purses and hangs it over his own shoulder. The woman in white sails in from the patio and spots a pair pushing a wheelchair-bound newcomer. Screaming in delight. she stands so close to me that we are almost touching. All four catch up at the top of their lungs.

I pick up my book and my tumbler of Chardonnay.

Slipping down into the pure land
into the Awakened State of Drunk
into the furnace blue Heart of the
one one one true Allah the Beloved
Companion of Dangerous Moods

“How is everything?” the tattooed waitress, with the extremely interesting cleavage, asks.

“Fine,” I reply, with only a slight eye roll. I set to on the salad.

They are still singing down at Dusko’s
sitting under the ancient pine tree,
in the deep night of fixed and falling stars.
If you go to your window you can hear them.
It is the end of someone’s wedding,
or perhaps a boy is leaving on a boat in the morning.

Cohen wrote this in 1967 on one of his Greek islands. I didn’t follow him to Greece for 7 years, and, even so, I didn’t get to the islands. Still I have heard singing on a beach across the gulf from Delphi. And eaten the small fish fresh from the sea. And found unsuitable love.

“Everything good?” asks the male manager.

“Yes,” I reply. “Everything is good.”

Bacchus, god of wine, wild reckless leader-astray of besotted followers has just paid a tangential visit to help his bro Apollo lift this despondent old girl out of her misery.

 

 

 

 

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Getting the Hawk off the Ground

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/ 
joycehowe.com

I am re-posting this blog post about the early stages of writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, prior to Saturday’s reading with Mar Preston (The Most Dangerous Species) at the Artworks in Pine Mountain Club – 7 p.m. (one of the Written Word Series, a free event).

In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about  3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.

“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.

The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving  writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all.  I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.

I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.

The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a  chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.

I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.

So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.

With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.