vietnamese girl

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.

Always the smell of tiger balm
takes me back to Kuala Lumpur in 1980,
the sweltering airstrips,
the sea of expectant upturned faces
of the refugees waiting en masse
at the bottom of the airplane stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second unimaginable lives.

Plane load after plane load,
week after week, three years running,
we ferried them across oceans.
After days and sometimes weeks
in crowded buses
they waited to be next in line,
these survivors of Pol Pot and
his merciless Khmer Rouge,
these witnesses of unimaginable horror.

We delivered them to Gander, to Montreal
and to Toronto,
away from all they had known,
everything they owned in small tidy bundles
at their feet.
We chose our words carefully
for the interpreter,
Trying to prepare them in some small way
for what lay ahead.

Where do you begin?
How do you tell someone how cold feels?
We played them music
we wanted them to hear,
hits of the day, Blondie, REO Speedwagon,
handed out sandwiches and Pampers
and wet naps.

They in turn watched our every move,
accepted anything given to them,
suspiciously at first,
then with vigorously nodding heads,
pouring forth their thanks,
holding up their solemn, silent babies proudly
for us to hold.

When we dimmed  the cabin lights,
hearing their guarded whispers
to one another,
sharing late night confessions in the dark
high above the ocean,
these people for whom
no sadness had gone unknown.

It was boarding them I remember most.
Even when I urged them
up the aircraft stairs, off the blistering tarmac,
beckoned them toward me,
they held back, tentative,
and only when I descended the stairs
took the first of them by the hand,
would they dare take the first step
toward this wild and inconceivable freedom.

I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.

olive garden

At what cost?

I’ve been thinking about social media a great deal. It is an unequaled tool for writers, manna from heaven actually as a way to connect with readers, old and new. But at what cost, I wonder? In its formidable wake, what is it that we are relinquishing?  

Are we forsaking the art of conversation? The glorious handwritten letter that flutters through the mailbox? The relaxed, cozy, stop and chat????

Here is a poem that resulted from my musings:

 

Bowed in Prayer.

At the Olive Garden on a Friday night, on my own,

I have just ordered the Tour of Italy and

notice the family huddled into a booth across the way,

six of them, three each side,

their heads collectively bowed over a cornucopia of glowing electronic boxes,

their fingers tapping away at microscopic keys,

the light reaching up to their faces at speeds

impossible to imagine.

So enchanted is the group with the cavalcade of data

pouring forth beneath them that I count a full two minutes

before any of them notices the waitress,

standing waiting at the head of their table.

Shall I come back, she asks graciously,

exhibiting a patience far above her pay scale.

 

Yeh, the one nearest to her finally pipes up,

the closest he’ll come to a conversation all weekend, 

and he didn’t even lift his head to say it.

bride

Clearing away the detritus…

Among my favorite poets writing today: Tony Hoagland. Few do it better. Who else could unearth a parallel between a blossoming dogwood and a bride ripping off her dress? He inspires us all to dig down a little deeper, to not be complacent. And asks us to pay attention to the things that truly matter after we clear away all the detritus.

 

A Color of the Sky

 

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,

driving over the hills from work.

There are the dark parts on the road

when you pass through clumps of wood

and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,

but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

 

I should call Marie and apologize

for being so boring at dinner last night,

but can I really promise not to be that way again?

And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing

in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

 

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;

the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves

are full of infant chlorophyll,

the very tint of inexperience.

 

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,

and on the highway overpass,

the only metaphysical vandal in America has written

MEMORY LOVES TIME

in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

 

Last night I dreamed of X again.

She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.

Years ago she penetrated me

but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,

I never got her out,

but now I’m glad.

 

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.

What I thought was an injustice

turned out to be a color of the sky.

 

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store

and the police station,

a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,

 

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

 

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.

It’s been doing that all week:

making beauty,

and throwing it away,

and making more.

sheep

Why I love children

I love their whimsy, how they abandon themselves to fun and are able to find it in almost all things. And how they have not the slightest fear of judgment or disdain.

In Tongue years ago, way up in the northernmost reaches of Scotland I popped in to a local shop. While browsing I spotted a wee lassie there with her father, dressed up in her lovely kilt, a matching tartan tam perched at an angle on her head.

She was curious about me – and watched me, as children will do – her eyes following me around the shop.

Standing alongside her I pointed to a tiny toy sheep displayed on the shelf, which was dressed comically in a full perfect tuxedo.

I asked her, quietly: “Now what would a sheep be doing dressed in a tux?”

She thought about it and then announced, seriously:

“Maybe he’s goin’ tae a weddin’.”

velella

A Windblown Legacy

Dolphins are toothed whales. Who knew?

How do you distinguish a dolphin fin from a shark fin? (You never know when that might come in handy.)

Easy!

Dolphins roll at the surface so you see more than just the fin. If you only see the fin and nothing more, head for the (air) mattresses.

I just came in from the beach. I was, as ever on these islands, beachcombing, with my writing pad and pencil tucked into my windbreaker pocket, hunting for “sea glass.”

It takes about 20 years for a piece of regular bottle glass to evolve into the much sought after “beach glass,” ubiquitous now in pendants, earrings, bracelets, etc. Twenty years, that is, of continuous buffeting by course sand and salt and sea spray. The glass must be exposed to all these elements during that time to render it smooth and opaque. And exquisite.

I bring these treasures home and display them everywhere – in wine glasses, soup tureens, ice buckets, any receptacle will do. In fact, the more incongruous the vessel, I find, the more intriguing the display.

These trips never disappoint. In a recent seaside meander I happened upon a diminutive jellyfish, a fascinating creature, about the size of a pinkie finger. They are usually deep blue in color, but their most obvious feature is a small stiff sail atop a transparent cylindrical base that catches the wind and propels them over the surface of the sea. The mainsail in this case is the fish’s protective barnacle, made of a fingernail like substance.

This jellyfish is commonly know by the names sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail, or simply Velella. Yes, they are small but they are amazingly resilient. Like Sammy Davis Jr (RIP). Or a toddler resisting bedtime.

When these wee jellyfish die their hardy mainsail remains, to become part of all that outlives us… their weathered windblown legacy.

More beaches – and discoveries await.

beach

Sea Change

The sea is my book today;
I read it wave by wave.
Light changes, wind shifts, the story unfolds,
the afternoon drifts on.
The mood is a placid one:
the water more green than blue.
Its movement is rhythmic, predictable,
like metered verse:
neat stanzas piling up on the shore,
politely making room for more.
Not like yesterday with its heavy drama,
all driving wind and heaving surf,
a real old-fashioned page-turner.
True to form,
it took no prisoners.
Tomorrow
from this same perch,
a brand new yarn awaits:
different book jacket,
different author,
title yet to come.

20140719_130517

A friend from the Bahamas visited me recently in Toronto.

I baked butter tarts for her, a Canadian staple, and added a bottle of maple syrup. Next, I set about preparing the card I would include: a compendium of quotes about Canada, with noteworthy observations and commentary by both residents and visitors. And for fun, a soupçon of the ill-advised and the flat out wrong.

The first quote that popped us was this, attributed to the indefatigable Britney Spears: “You get to travel to overseas places, like Canada.”

From brainy Britney we move to, who else, the French explorer Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan (now that’s a handle!), who said in 1702: “To survive the Canadian winter, one needs a body of brass, eyes of glass, and blood made of brandy.”

The Iroquois wars gave him his glass eye, his blood would definitely have had a high brandy content, and he probably did have certain nether regions composed of brass to venture here 300 years ago.

Next up, the ever-capricious Al Capone: “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”

Rather amusing, from someone who actually knew Canada rather well, since he visited with the infamous distiller Hiram Walker frequently at his Walkerville, Ontario mansion. The two would carouse while making arrangements to ship Canadian Club Whisky south. You see, CC was aged a minimum of five years in oak casks, while American whiskies and bourbons were aged a paltry year. Al knew his booze.

Comic Jon Stewart weighed in next with this: “I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.”

Not so fast, Jon Boy…might not be so easy to do. It’s a common misconception that Canadians don’t have guns.  But for good or bad, seven million of us are armed…that’s about 20 percent of our population. Not to worry, though; we tend to shoot mostly deer, bear, moose, and caribou..

Writers were no gentler with us.

Here is W. Bruce Cameron in his book Emory’s Gift: It was Canada where they let people do whatever they wanted because it was too cold to bother stopping them.”

Kelly Link in Magic for Beginners said: “The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you.”

Ouch. Leave it to Jane Fonda to save the day with this love note: “When I’m in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.”

Jane, how you talk!

This also cheered me up, from Spook Country, William Gibson’s political thriller: “Canadian cities looked the way American cities did on television.”

Winston Churchill may have exulted about Canada more than anyone. “There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people.”

Nice schmooze, Winnie…that was in 1939, and he was desperate for volunteers. We did not disappoint him.

In my travels I find people’s knowledge about Canada has vastly improved; now the real facts are a few keyboard clicks away. But misconceptions still abound, mostly about our (yawn) weather.

Does it snow all the time?  Do you snowmobile to work? Do you use British money? You all speak French, right?  It’s stuff like this that really gets our fur collars up.

And no. We don’t all play hockey. Many of us have never even strapped on skates. I, for one, am allergic to ice and am still traumatized by the time I tangled skate blades with a bully at the local arena and was catapulted straight into the boards, effectively kyboshing the slightest affection I might ever have had for the colder climes.

A somewhat hardier Stephen Leacock, the country’s celebrated humorist, eloquently characterized our national sport this way in 1895: “Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.”

Another native, comedian Rick Mercer, offered this truism: “The U.S. is our trading partner, our neighbor, our ally and our friend… and sometimes we’d like to give them such a smack!”

Truth be told, Canadians are quite kindly disposed to our neighbours to the south. We visited you 23.4 million times in 2013!

Toronto activist and author June Callwood was ever the straight shooter. “The beaver, which has come to represent Canada as the eagle does the United States and the lion Britain, is a flat-tailed, slow-witted, toothy rodent known to bite off its own testicles or to stand under its own falling trees.”

Our very own Mike Myers quipped: “Canada is a subtle flavor — we’re more like celery as a flavor.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt after reading this sentiment from Jan Wong’s memoir, Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now. “Living in China has made me appreciate my own country, with its tiny, ethnically diverse population of unassuming donut-eaters.”

But leave it to Robin Williams to skewer us to perfection. “Canada is like a loft apartment over a really great party. Like: ‘Keep it down, eh?’”

I can’t find out who came up with this little jewel but it may rank as my favorite of them all:

“Canada is like your attic. You forget that it’s up there, but when you go, it’s like ‘Oh man, look at all this great stuff!’”