Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.

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Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum. Come to the Cabaret

Cabarethttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moOamKxW844

Georgia celebrated her birthday this week. I had bought tickets to Cabaret at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. I told her where to find them in my apartment in Toronto. They weren’t where I thought they were, but she called me on my land line and I told her to look under the paper weight and there they were. I had invited Blake to go with us. He had agreed to drive. And Georgia asked her daughter to go with them on my ticket.

When I bought the tickets in May, I thought to myself that it would be a treat to compensate me for the end of summer, as well as a good way to celebrate my younger sister’s birthday. Blake, my ex-husband, has known us since we were 16 and 10 respectively and we three always enjoy each others’ company.

Only problem – I am here where summer seems never to end and a typical morning greeting is “another beautiful day in paradise”. You hear that a lot in Southern California, but never more than here high in the mountains, a place which the  Chumash called the Center of the World. It is a town built around a golf club and its sole industry is leisure. Some people actually set out at 5 a.m. to drive down to work in the cities, even as far as Los Angeles, but many more do not. They get up early to play a round of golf and only then do they eat breakfast at the club house. They are resolutely friendly, waving as they pass you in their golf carts.

Others are economic refugees, here because you can buy a house for less than a hundred thousand or rent one for less than a thousand. There are many musicians and many free musical events. They will insist on playing without as much as free beer for their reward. There are talented writers and artists as well and festivals and events that showcase their work.

There are weekenders with big houses, executives, movie people, we suppose. We don’t meet them really.

And yet I missed Cabaret.

Georgia reported that it was wonderful, the set amazing. Blake took them to a good, untouristy restaurant for lunch.

I am suddenly struck by homesickness.

The maple tree across the street from the duplex where I live will have turned red by now. The one in front will soon turn yellow. The swallows will have left on or about August 28th. The geranium on the front porch -did anyone water it?- will be dying back even if they did. Tall grasses beside the bike path will be dead. Crows will be calling more than usual. Perhaps like the swallows, they are coming south.

It goes down below 60 F here at night. The cool air comes down from the heights above as soon as the sun goes down. I close the window before dawn. But by the time I go out the door, it is beginning to get hot, reaching the upper 80s by afternoon. And it is dusty. That’s the nature of a desert climate, even a high desert with pine forest. It’s rained once in the three months I’ve been here. A short trip on the golf cart leaves me, the cart and whatever I have with me -groceries, my laptop, my laundry caked in dust. In Bakersfield, an hour north, the valley floor kicks up so much dust that the mountains beyond look misty.

My Grandpa Munn couldn’t bear to leave his home, a farm in the mountains in Quebec. He would pine away when he did, growing more silent and pale as time wore on. The longest he was ever away was a week, but to him it felt like eternity. I’m not that homesick. I didn’t even notice it until I missed Cabaret. And these mountains are very like his mountains,so they are like that early home of mine.

Besides I’ve had the good fortune of having to be here amidst such beauty and in the middle of my family. Why complain?

The north seems to built into my bones. I miss the quickening of fall.

Carrickfergus – soul song

 

jim mccannYesterday’s ear-worm, the traditional Irish ballad, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus” was so persistent that I dropped everything to deal with it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaurO8e5-mg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJMggxSzxM4

The first You Tube link is the song sung by Bruce Guthro; the second by Jim McCann  (pictured above) of the Dubliners. The latter is revered by fans of the song. There is also a version by Loudon Wainright III, done for Boardwalk Empire, as well as Van Morrison and others by women, such as Joan Baez – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S7ITkoxojI

I have been a great lover of traditional ballads ever since those halycon days when high school curriculum loosened up in the early 70’s and such poetry was taught in English class. One of my adult children thinks I sang it, but I didn’t know the words until yesterday, so I thought she was remembering other similarly tragic ballads that I put on the record player.

If you go to Wikepedia, you get arcane tips on where the song came from, the fact that Carrickfergus is in County Antrim, which other ballads may have been melded to create it, etc. In other places, you will learn that the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole taught it to Dominic Behan who recorded it – thus bringing it to popular attention- and supposedly, added a verse of his own. On other sites, you will learn that it was written by Van Morrison, James Taylor, etc. Or perhaps it was written by an Irish poet who died in 1745. I’m tempted to say I wrote it. Why not? Usually, old ballads like this are ascribed to Anonymous and since they were orally transmitted, there are many versions. Perhaps my daughter is right about hearing the song in childhood because I have a memory of knowing how Joan Baez gave new meaning to the last two lines: Ah, but I am sick now, my days are numbered/ So come all you young men and lay me down.

The song begins:

I wish I was in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygran(d)
 I would swim over the deepest ocean
The deepest ocean for my love to find.

Some on-line commentators find “nights in Ballygran” puzzling. Really? Joan Baez makes this clearer: “I wish I had you in Carrickfergus.” Carrickfergus names a borough or wider area than the town of Ballygrand, which is located there.

Clearly, the song is about an insurmountable obstacle, which the singer first announces can be overcome by heroic effort, but then grows sadly more realistic.
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over
And neither have I wings to fly
If I could find me a handsome (handy) boatman
To ferry me over to my love and I (and die)

Boatmen have been associated with passage to the next life ever since the Greeks put coins on the eyes of the dead to pay for ferry passage across the River Styx. (I once spent a summer holiday on the banks of this actual river – literally.)  So I think that singing and I is just a dodge to keep the crowd in the pub happy.

My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy times I spent so long ago
My boyhood (girlhood) friends and my own relations
Have passed away like melting snow

Is this the verse Behan wrote? Seems so to me.

But I’ll spend my days in endless (ceaseless) roaming
Soft is the grass and my bed is free
Ah, to be back in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the salty sea

Well, at least there was that.

And in Kilkenny it is reported
There are marble stones as black as ink (Written on stones…)
With gold and silver I did support her (he did support me)
But I’ll sing no more now till I get a drink.

I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Ah but I’m sick now, my days are numbered
Come all ye young men and lay me down.

So happy childhood, adult prosperity, loss, exile, vagrancy and drunkenness. These verses speak to the part of me that would love to deal with such loss by staying drunk. Fortunately, this is not an overwhelming urge because I ration the pinot grigio strictly. The lines encourage empathy in me for less sober types.

Having spent the whole day with the song, listening to it over and over, I had a good grieve. Catharsis, we English teachers call it, fear and pity that cleanse the heart.

In the end, however, I fell in love with the full-throated voices of the singers, as if it were being sung by my beloved. The song is full of the deep suffering life can bring us, the dreams that get trashed, the lovers and children and houses and status lost. But, even though we may be wanderers from town to town and deeply in need of comfort, something has been guiding us to where we are, which is where we need to be.

The alternate ending to the second verse seems to me truer to the tale the singer is telling.

The Urban Woods in Mid September

woods sunny mid SEptThe woods is very still this morning. We come down the sunny sloping path, the little caramel coloured sheba inu and I, and find a noisy smell. It takes some encouragement to get her through the domain of this angry skunk and I decide we will stick to the path just in case. Once we are through it, I hear an unseen cardinal whistle three times on the steep hillside to the left and then a chickadee call, farther off. Even the leaves of the poplars are still. The black oak leaves and the silver maple are etched against the blue sky.

blue sky above woodsI keep the walk going at a good pace in the interests of our primary mission, but once that is fulfilled and collected in the requisite stoop and scoop bag, I let the dog saunter. As we turn back three Canada Geese honk their way across the sky. They sound as if they are getting ready to migrate, but, probably, like most of their ilk, they don’t bother travelling anymore.

Now the little dog begins to show her zen-like nature, true to her Japanese genetic code perhaps. She stops beside a sunlit glade and turns her head to gaze back down the path.

sunny gladeWhat entrances her, I can not tell. Something I can not hear perhaps, for there is no nose work going on. It’s not an olfactory story she is reading. It is warm here and so quiet that I begin to relax as I wait. There are yellow flowers in front of me and a bee that hauls its whole upper body into the hanging “gondola” of the touch-me-not Jewelweed. It drinks deeply from one, tries another, finds it not to its liking and moves on.

This photo is obviously not of the yellow flower, but is the same shape.

This photo is obviously not of the yellow flower, but is the same shape.

Goldenrod made change.

Goldenrod made change.

And there are other small delights.

snail on yellow daisyA slight breeze, a true zephyr,  lifts the leaves just above our heads momentarily. Still the little dog stands gazing down the path.

Peace descends. The cares that have driven me at a fast clip along my path drop away. None of the urgent problems – economic, social and health, besetting my loved ones and me- have been resolved. They have just melted. They have been set free. I am happy. Glad of this blue-sky day in mid September. Nothing to do but breathe, at home in my urban woods.

April

April Crocus in the Rain

April Crocus in the Rain

Chaucer begins The Canterbury Tales with a jaunty tribute to April:
When that Aprill with his shoures soote
The draught of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtue engendered is the flour
……
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

When April with his sweet showers has pierced to the root what March dried up and bathed every vein in such moisture… then people long to go on pilgrimages (chiefly of course to Canterbury.)

And so a knight, his young squire, a yeoman, a prioress, a nun, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a clerk, and a dozen others, including the Good Wyf besyde Bathe set out on horseback to pray to “the blisful martir”, St Thomas Becket. On their way, they pass the time by telling each other stories, some chivalric, some edifying and some downright raunchy.

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

T.S. Eliot, on the other hand lamented in “The Waste Land”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sounds a bit negative but then, this part of the poem is called “The Burial of the Dead”. Eliot felt that life, devoid of meaning, is death, while death, if sacrificial, is life-giving.

Vernon Duke, songwriter, celebrated April and Paris:
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables  under the trees,
April in Paris, this is a feeling,
No one can ever reprise.

Lucky Paris! The chestnuts in my town won’t bloom until the end of May.

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. He said, “Men are April when they woo and December when they wed.” His was a shot-gun wedding to an older woman.

Same ingredients, different cakes!

What do you make of April?