Archive | June 2013

I No Gone Cat – the loss of a beloved companion

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Gollum, 2003-2014 – the latest in my series of losses –

Some years ago now, I wrote the following poem and it seems to have become the one that  gets read more than any of my others put together. I’d just lost a young cat to cardiomyopathy, which hit him out of nowhere. Even my vet was caught off-guard. After I buried him, I sat down and wrote. My mother, who is mentioned therein, left on her own journey in November of that same year. We are, indeed, prepared for grief in many different ways.

For some reason, the poem took on a life of its own. It won the monthly IBPC competition for May of 2004, judged by CJ Sage, then was published in LilyLit Review, so it received an audience. People started asking for copies. They still tell me that they’re sending it to friends when a pet passes away. I’m happy that it offers comfort and am hoping it will continue to do so. Sam was a wonderful cat, and this is his story in his own style – with certain additional details that he has chosen to provide.

I No Gone Cat, You Just Not See Me

for Sam, 2000-2004
and for my cat-rescuer friend Laurie

I almost sleeping when he come. He say,
“Cat, why you not look up? Eyes see all
that be, until breath stop. Watch with eyes.”
When I open, he shine like morning, right
here in scary place. Two-leg mother
with me, talk touch, talk touch. I not
try stretch out claws, even after
she hurt my ear and trap me tight
for bring where are other sick ones.

“She love you,” Sun Cat say, “so she
want help you better but not time now
for her do that.” He stand close and then
I sitting beside him with no sore ear,
and ribs not breaking under. Puss on
table lie quiet, black-white like me.
He big fluffy boy with paws curled
and hay in tail. “What barn cat be this?”
I not want new enemy and he mighty
long fur but no move, him. Red earstick
and face shut off. “He be you, name Sam.”

Now I not smartest scratcher in litter box
but I know me and not-me, and him not me.
He stiff as shavings frozen in stall when I
dig for cover pee. He a dead old buddy.
I with friend who glowing all around.
It dark everywhere but Gold Mister jump–
just like that–off table in air. “Hurry,”
he call me. “You not my only today.”

And we outside, where is car and Two-leg
mother. She cry water salt on box in arms
and other two-leg carry cage but it empty.
We watch her go away and I very sad
for I remember she have love me.

“You tell goodbye,” Gold Mister speak
and surprise me. “Where your barn is?”
Before I answer, we there. Stray tom stand
in loft where I like fight him. “No,”
Gold Mister tell me though I not talk this.
“His now. He need home; you have fine
other place. Not worry about him more.”

Tom my enemy once but I no problem
for him now. Farm dogs run, maybe smell
me. They stop in path and grin so I tell
what happen. Hope they figure out.
“You gone away?” young stupid one ask.
Grey-muzzle lick at shadow and understand.
“We meet soon,” I tell her. How I know?

Others not outdoors but we are in house
and not through window, either. “They
allow see you this one day,” Sun Cat
explain, so I say we miss each other.
I make sorry for not always be friendly.
I mean son-of-a-tabby sometimes.

Car in driveway and Gold Mister
show me strange thing. Two-leg mother
dig deep deep deep, toss earth stones roots
and put plastic bag at bottom. It have
paw press against, white like Sam foot.
Wet in there so she shovel throw sawdust too.
“That from pile beside window where I napping
in winter.” Gold Mister not speak. “Why I
leave her? Just young fellow; needed here, me.”

He spin bigger than fireball that fall
from summer. “Job done,” he roar. “You get
her ready for bigger sorrow.” I understand
what he mean. She have little mother-
woman who very sick. She lose me, learn
get strong. But hard not tell her I watching.
She never even hear meow or feel tail brush,
before snow cover not-me. “You visit back
one time,” is all what I allowed. Then he
tell me stare at sun, no see home anymore.

They aster flowers where we hunt today. Old
cat mama near, even Siamese friend find me.
Gold Mister teach me how go back,
be some new kitten when I finish learning.
But this good place and I happy Sam now.

 

(c) 2004 BJ Tate

first published in LilyLit Review 2004; Cleansing (Rising Tide Press) 2005 and Wingflash (Pink Petticoat Press) 2011

 

Three family cats who have joined Sam over the years:  Mini (top), Raven (bottom left), Gimli (bottom right – my daughter’s cat).
Sam’s photo is missing from my files. I suspect it was stored on a CD that later became unreadable. 

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For All the Broken Butterflies

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For All the Broken Butterflies

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow. – Pavel Friedman, “The Butterfly”, June 4 1942

You are old now, torn by air and the too-sharp petals of every false flower                                
in the world. Nothing about you will stay any longer than your paths                                       
through the wet grass. Hopeful to the final probe, you prickle your tongue                                    
with sweet beads. Cobalt and ochre dust sifts through the morning’s thorns.

God writes your kind on parchment – haiku of a single hour. Early sun
burns through your dénouement. Foils turn to deltas of dry rivers.
Yet you fear no evil in the vacuum beyond this last garden.
Since you cannot hold memories, I would offer a few for each
of your journeys, my friend.

A woman grips her own innocence – round fruit on an open palm. Raised
hands,  juice between fingers, sticky lure you must never try to drink.
Shake free: clouds and walls, slam of a gate below you.

Taste now Ishmael’s wrist. Lick the salt desert from his skin.
Feel Hagar’s laugh, its bubble like water rising. Her son opens a spring
with his heel, bends toward the wet stones. Tremble your heart
against his pulse, then blow away.

Settle as a leopard on Khadija’s robe, companion to the slow
sandglass of her breath. Your veins are stitching gold and shadow.
Habibti, she murmurs – My own beloved. But you have such a tiny voice,
not made for love. Eyes on your wings open to watch her leave.
Their bruised edges she has chosen not to see.

Rest on a Roman’s plume, bring a kiss from his daughter. He cannot kill
you this time – evader of flags, hooves, spears, fire. You, the stroke
of light beyond an old man’s window. First visitor at a rolled tomb,
even before the women.

Wisp caught on a barb at Terezin. A small boy points and cries,
Mameh … look! He calls you angel, pinned on unforgiving wire.
Not even the bravest of all malachim will fly to this place,
his mother answers.

When death arrives at last, it always belongs to someone else.
So it is best not to remember everything I tell you.

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2013
~ posted in an exhibit at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Western Branch ~

*The community of Terezin was the location of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where 12,000 children were kept prisoner during the Holocaust. 90% did not survive. Pavel Friedman, from whose poem I quote at the beginning, was one of those children. He later died at Auschwitz.

Musings from Eden

The Book of Genesis provides many opportunities for literary creation. As a poet, I keep returning to it for ideas and themes. I tend to view its events as part of a complex mythos that predates Christianity by millennia, yet also represents an interpretation of creation as viewed by the Old Testament/Torah authors – more intuitive than analytical, but still compelling. The Word figures prominently in this narrative, not to mention in the New Testament, and in Greek The Word is Λόγος or logos – Logic, Reason. I approach Genesis from a metaphorical and symbolical perspective rather than as a literal text, yet the process of creation itself appears to be vaguely parallel to what actually must have happened, albeit with certain artistic liberties. It does have its inherent logic. The primary issue is in the exact details and, of course, the time frame. There’s a certain progression from formless void to a coalescing planet, the appearance of water and an atmosphere, the rise of marine creatures, vascular plants, land animals with birds, then homo sapiens – appearing quite late in the sequence. The creatures of Eden that existed in this period were already there when Adam showed up. He was asked to name them, in fact. Needless to say, he did not have to identify the extinct ones since they were already gone. But I digress (as usual).

Being a woman, I have long resented the burdens placed upon my gender by those who see Eve as some sort of original sinner – regardless of Adam’s own role in this particular transgression. I, personally, understand why she reached for that pomegranate*. She was consumed by curiosity and a hunger to know things. As the verb sciare means “to know”, it is not a stretch to consider Eve as the first scientist on the planet. She was willing to overlook the serpent’s rather sinister appearance, although she may have instinctively distrusted it, in order to learn. The pursuit of learning often comes at a considerable price, after all. Many have since died for it. Discovery is often tied to great personal risk.

These intellectual qualities were part of Eve’s composition from the outset. Therefore, I have to assume that God fully expected her to go after enlightenment and orchestrated her “fall” to make it look like deliberate defiance on her part. He didn’t give Adam that kind of drive toward understanding. It seems rather clever of Him to force Eve’s hand by forbidding her to even think about that Tree of Knowledge. As He had made this pair as childlike beings in adult bodies, He probably anticipated the next step. A child will inevitably push the limits and grab whatever he or she has been told not to touch. Any parent is well aware of this fact. If this sounds like determinism as opposed to free will … yes, it probably is. Free will might not have been as important in the beginning as it has become in later ages. First, humanity had to evolve somehow and survive the process.

In the end, Eve’s actions quite conveniently resulted in the punishment of childbearing. The world needed to be populated, after all. God could simply have erased her and used another rib. But He chose not to do so. Eden was undoubtedly a glorious place but, as Robert Frost has noted in a poem by the same title, “Nothing gold can stay.” Maybe it was never designed to last forever. But coupled with Eve’s newly-assigned physical pain was an intense emotional bonding to her baby. Most mothers would probably view this as a fair exchange.

At any rate, I write a fair bit of “Eden Poetry”. I’m including two samples below, with accompanying photos. If you tend to hold the fundamentalist and literal view of Genesis or Biblical history in general, my blog will possibly not be to your liking. I tend to wrestle with metaphysical issues that make people uncomfortable – not always, but occasionally. No apologies, however. God and/or Goddess (I can’t associate either sex with such a remote and incomprehensible being) gave me an imagination and meant for me to use it.

On to the poems …

*Note – Since apples were unknown in the region where Eden is said to have existed, but pomegranates were native to that area, most historians now believe that “apple” is a faulty translation for a fruit that looks quite similar, in that both are red, round, juicy and seed-bearing.

 

 

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Bait

He tightens himself into his branches,
rustles their leaves only a little –
yellow hearts, he notices. Jigging
lightly in a late-harvest shower.
But he cannot name the tree, although
he knows it has one. Everything
is named, but fading like himself.
Memories wrap around and around,
tendrils without the strength
to cling harder or vine wilder.

He has chosen carefully his lure,
red ripeness and high sweet notes
like a descant above the darker alto
of this abandoned garden.
Blemished, certainly, but some
imperfections grow their own hooks.

He has set himself above her,
runs his tongue over the last
of his teeth as she steps without
questioning this path made for her.
She scents the grass with musk –
resonant as these autumn apples –
and scans the hedges for spies
among their thorns. He looks down,
deeper than the already shadows.

She has been here forever.
Only the coyotes are evil, but
they hold music in their voices
so she accepts them as necessary.
Shrinking light limns her
with a brief aureole. Her gaze
lifts toward him, mandorla-eyes
centered with sun points.

The odour of their temptation
wreathes them – his locked arms,
her eagerness. She stretches
her neck; he remembers a swan
dropping from the blank sky
with arrows in its breast.
He slides out his instrument:
that weapon hidden in his head –
less merciful now, primed
with all the failed chases strung
from his neck. Beads shaped
like every sorrow in the world.
He understands he is not beautiful,
so cruelty must be sufficient.
He owns this forked seat
of both cunning and disaster.

When she finally eats, he blinks
with sudden regret. As if his vision
shows only part truth. As if her
innocence trumps everything
he believes about himself.
I am your God, he whispers then.
For once, I get to decide.
But no tremor shakes the quiet.
Because nobody cares what he says.

She is listening to the wind. He strains
toward her, so elastic now. So cocksure.
He will give her one chance. Yet she
stands unafraid, the juice of his sin
leaking from her mouth. No hand
out of the holy air will drag her
away from this place of atonement.
This lost orchard, where ruined fruit
offers her all its power. Where
nothing else wonders what its name is.
And everything depends on the fall.

He is quick as any striking asp, but
still winces at the recoil that rattles
trunk, earth, even the dusk itself.
A birdwing flurry rises above him.
He wishes he could take it all back.

But she is lost to him now,
vanished into her new awareness.
He stoops to stroke her, draws
away from the up-and-down saw
of her ribs dying under his touch.
She has put on mortality – lies
here in mud and damnation.

Night pools around her like blood
under an old and broken bough.

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2011 – all rights reserved

from Tipping the Sacred Cow, Fortunate Childe Publications, 2011; reprinted in Wingflash, Pink Petticoat Press, 2011

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In the Beginning

Our mothers taught us too well
to fear the snake, bringer of a cry 
under the knife, a cutting, the mangled 
cord that loops us to a single loss,
one night when we forgot
to be wary. The rind stretches,
inevitably bursts. 

In this blackberry meadow 
we gather – we women who hold 
that same pomegranate 
the serpent offers, month after month, 
year upon bloody year, until its lure
gleams flat as a mirror, raised 
for us to bear witness.

Here, then, are its red-jellied ova 
in their five hundred cradles: this, 
a sea-maid with war under her fists;
this, a dust orphan who believes 
only that each road leads 
to some new sorrow.

There, tumbling downriver, 
a firstborn son grasps his own 
ankles, jellyfishes on the current. 
And there, a buttercup lass 
without voice refuses to curse 
her creator. She does not recognize 
a bribe when it dangles in front 
of her hand. The swollen skin is fruit – 
nothing more. She wrinkles it 
into the dirt.        

We limp toward our dry age,
when every kernel is blown and gone. 
I throw off my heavy scarf 
dividing skull from spine. Thought
has become acceptable. I am 
no longer forbidden to jackknife 
questions for my enemy 
in a round-bark trunk. Nothing 
grows inside me any more. 

The Garden temptress hums sweet 
as a harp – she, who has tricked 
us from the beginning. Her secret 
teeth fill a gourd with droplets 
of juice. Its neck juts firm, 
the last man-thing in paradise. 
The false adder hangs her trap
on a thorn. Insects jostle each other.
Come, you are not too late.
Flies’ wings click-zip together
like angel bones.

She could have bitten Eve 
instead of feeding her. She has never 
shared a bond with Adam, the lust
that urges every poor girl to damn
herself. Now she relives that choice, 
over and over, having no legs
to walk away from it. We are all too late,
but she understands.

We watch her tend the tree, cultivate
its next crop – wisdom and illusion. 
Apples for fools. Pomegranates for the rest, 
who should know better. She lacks 
interest in us now.
 
Then we leave her there and follow 
the flowless rivers out of Eden, 
where beheaded grasses shake and mourn. 
She has taken our wombs before
letting us go. No rapture can ever enter us 
by that path again. The gate rings 
as it closes. 

 

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2011 – all rights reserved

First published on IBPC, Web del Sol (October 2011)

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Words about Wings

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As a poet, I tend to write what I know best – which usually means that my themes are drawn from familiar experiences and settings. The world around me, or the people and other creatures who inhabit that world, lend me their voices sometimes. Today, I’ll share two of my poems about hummingbirds. At least, on one level they’re about hummingbirds. They’re taken from my third collection, Wingflash, published in 2011 by Pink Petticoat Press (see link below the poetry and photos). This is the time of ruby-throats and as I write, they zip and chitter through the rain beyond my window. I love their tenacity and boldness! One need not be massive, muscular and loud in order to leave a lasting imprint on our collective psyche. It is enough to delight the eye, yet remain quick and ephemeral, never present for longer than a season.

Photographing a Hummingbird

It is not enough to be ready – shutter speed set to overfast,
lens filled with sungleam. He mocks me – he is not the float
of a waterlily far from shore. He is a close-up stutter, one stray

spark from fire I have not ignited. He lights on a wire
above my head and I can smell the ash, drifting. When I anticipate
his flight path, he knows. Better to listen with my fingertip,

prick its skin with the sound of air dividing: pre-thunder
for a lesser being. A storm that never reaches me.
Wingflash over monarda! Long before his body shapes itself,

I open a hand that cannot hold him, forget the camera.
This prayer inhabits a bird, and he will never offer himself.
He was not created for my redemption.

At the crematorium, I stop outside the door, afraid to view
my father. I wish he had not died on his own, a fallen
straggler. It is not enough to be ready – he is one stray spark

from fire ignited and drowned. The sky can refuse him now.
But I wait for a wingflash, one image: the captivity of leaving.
Listen for air to divide around him as he shines.

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2011, all rights reserved

 

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September Morning in the Garden

The last hummer has abandoned me now,
whirring her path behind the sea’s wrinkled
invitation sent on a southeast wind.
My bee balm slowly circles a black hole
at its centre. I sip café au lait,
brought from that same forest where hummingbirds
retreat to grow old. If the clouds are kind –
if no whirling horrors with human names
toss them aside – if nets fail to pull them
out of the air they trust. Small perfect things
jitter across the sharpened grassblades. Brass
chimes haunt the lake. My jadeite pendant swings,
spills its light. I am stretching – a skin drum.    
No prayers needed. Nothing to save me from.

Brenda Levy Tate (c) 2011, all rights reserved

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The Pink Petticoat Press

http://thepinkpetticoatpress.yolasite.com/

Truth, Beauty and Eight Little Legs

But another sound followed them long after these had faded  – the tiny, dry sound of a spider weeping. – Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

As a photographer and friend of photographers, I view and share countless images. My internet tastes these days run to photos uploaded by people whose work I admire. I seek such photos elsewhere as well – in galleries and exhibits and art shops. Much of their subject matter is focused on the natural world, and a major aspect of that world is the macrocosm inhabited by small beings whose lives defy our full comprehension. While we can usually relate to – and even empathize with – a seal, groundhog, elephant or macaw, how do we establish a connection with, say, a crab spider? Where is the common ground between us and a centipede or earwig?

The local spiders, in particular, intrigue me because of their obvious work ethic, coupled with persistence in the face of adversity. I can’t help but applaud anyone or anything that is willing to build and rebuild, endlessly and without quitting, despite the cruel sweep of mortality that tears down every cable and strand and tower. Orb weavers craft remarkable webs, which human beings frequently rip apart – not always by accident. Wind and rain wreak further destruction on this fragile architecture. A dog crashing through tall grass can destroy the efforts of a hundred spider-hours within seconds. Yet the diminutive web-mistresses will begin their tasks again come nightfall, and each morning will see a fresh and glimmering array, suspended from branch or blade.

With the spiders that don’t make webs at all, but prefer to crouch on flowers or under leaves, there’s an immediacy that is lacking among the makers of thread. They simply grab their prey when it drops in for a bit of nectar or maybe to answer some mysterious call of nature; the intent is to snatch now and store for later, unless the spider is particularly hungry at the moment. It’s fascinating to watch this process. I’ve wasted … I mean spent … endless afternoons in quiet observation of the floral battlefields in my garden. Eventually, for the spider on her coneflower or centaurea, the deal-breakers are time and decay. Flowers wither and lose their appeal to pollen gathers. The arachnid population must pull up stakes and move to fresher territory. There’s not much action to be had on a shrivelled daisy. In the process of changing residence, undoubtedly some of these mobile tenants are lost to weather, birds, tires and feet. And in the end, they’ll die anyway, sooner rather than later. The life of a spider in our region is notoriously short, because we have cold winters here. The female argiope, for instance, hatches in the autumn of one year and exits during the first hard frost the following fall, not long after she has mated and left an egg case behind. It takes repeated attempts and clumsy errors before she can learn to craft the perfect web. All that effort, all those glorious gossamer dream-catchers hung from reeds and sedges … and then she’s gone.

So many people use the “poisonous spider” excuse as their reason for obliterating every creepy-crawler within range of a broom. The correct term is “venomous”, and while almost all spiders inject some sort of venom into their prey to immobilize it, that prey is usually small and puny – a fly, a beetle, a grasshopper, maybe a minnow. Most spiders don’t have the ability to penetrate human skin and inject much of anything. A few might bite in self-defence but the result is usually just a brief sting. We’re not talking rattlesnakes and pit vipers here. Even worldwide, comparatively few people are actually injured by spider bites and very few die – perhaps two a year, out of the billions on our planet. “Of around 50,000 spider species known, only about 25 (1/20 of 1%) have venom capable of causing illness in humans, to a greater or lesser extent. In any given locality you can expect to find from zero to (at most) three such species. These species are called ‘medically significant’ spiders.” http://www.burkemuseum.org/spidermyth/index.html  We can be killed by many different antagonists among the wildlife we encounter; spiders aren’t even close to the top of the most-dangerous-animal list.

In Nova Scotia, we have no spiders with venom dangerous to humans. Ours are all harmless except to their prey. Most, in fact, help us by eating the insect pests we would prefer to do without. For me, if offered a choice between a big ol’ garden spider and a horde of blackflies that she is waiting to consume, I’ll always take the spider.

But this monologue isn’t about spider myths, or the sensationalist stories that often promote these myths and can be passed down through generations of the spider-scared. People averse to spiders, or actually afraid of them, won’t be convinced by any amount of factual reassurance. They will continue to hate spiders, react with strong exclamations when confronted with them, and comment on spider photos with decidedly negative responses. “Eeeuuwww” and “ugh” are fairly common examples. Still, this saddens me when I see it. Photographing spiders, for me, is both challenging and rewarding. If I can effectively capture the miniscule hairs on a yellow-and-black striped leg that’s under 2mm long, then my day has been a modest success.

So what’s the point? you ask. She likes to take spider pictures. Big whoop. For some people, that ranks right up there with being impaled on a steel fence surrounding their local sewage treatment pond. They’d rather haul out the smartphone and immortalize a lovely sunset over water, or maybe an apple tree clothed in pink and white. I almost feel sorry for them; I say “almost” because I take sunset and flowering-tree shots too.

The point is that we define beauty, and identify what is beautiful, in deeply personal ways. Keats once said that beauty and truth were the same thing. I’m not sure where that leaves the actress whose chest size keeps expanding to gratify some weird standard of “wow”, or the sixty-something with a Botox habit. Still, the man had a point. If we can’t celebrate the natural way something looks, acts and simply exists, it’s not likely we’ll be too excited about any amendments to that authenticity.

A spider is incapable of deception – except, again, towards its prey. It can sometimes mimic its surroundings by changing colour. It can hide and pretend to be an innocent blemish on a stem. But those ruses are still part of its essential makeup. All members of its clan will do the same; this is their “spiderness” kicking in. People, however, can misrepresent themselves for individual convenience, though not everyone will do it or try the same method of fakery. We have few basic traits for humanness that apply to each person. Most are culturally determined. To a spider, her culture embraces her entire species.

I do find these tiny beings quite lovely. They are symmetrical, and their eyes are astonishing – complex, often multiple, and clearly not capable of viewing their surroundings as I view mine. Many spider species are decorated with patterns as gorgeous as any found on clay pottery or intricate beadwork. Even the brownish spiders clinging to the side of my house are wondrous in their variety. No two will have identical markings. They seem similar but upon closer inspection, there will be definite amendments to the general design. I love these fat, tenacious creatures! Last winter, a leftover web attached across my kitchen window was so durable that it collected snowflakes during a storm and was transformed into a web of crystalline white. “Spider silk has incredible tensile strength and is often touted as being several times stronger than steel of the same thickness. What’s even more unique, however, is spider silk’s elasticity.” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0114_050114_tv_spider_2.html

I appreciate that the majority of highly visible spiders around my own home are female. The fair sex is bigger, more aggressive and prettier. The males are teensy-weensy, nondescript and expendable. In many spider species, they are useful for providing sperm for reproduction and then, immediately after that process (or even during the act itself), they supply nutrients for the female by allowing themselves to be eaten. They only ever get a first date, in other words – no follow-up. This sexual cannibalism is quite common and normally it’s the male who dies but in rare cases, certain species reverse the trend and the males dine on the females (talk about survival of the fittest!).

The other thing is that you never see a spider that looks ill or old, which isn’t true of most other species. Take butterflies, moths and bees, for instance – more widely-admired than spiders, although bee stings are responsible for thousands of  anaphylactic shock episodes, and a fortune in epi-pens. These “cuter” bugs end up with worn and ragged wings, or patchy bald spots on their fuzzy bodies. Many mammals become arthritic, grey, thin and weak. Birds can lose feathers and develop a seedy appearance that does not bode well for their senior years. Fish float on the water with their eyes blank and bulging. But when spiders wear out, they just die and vanish (or dry up and blow away). They don’t hang around looking pitiful; they don’t cry either, even if they might want to. They’ve got most of us beat when it comes to finishing with panache.

Because I enjoy peering into the miniature landscape all around me, I do tend to boldly tiptoe where others tread only in work boots. When I happen to spot a nest of newly-emerged spiderlings, my first instinct is to run for the camera. It is never, ever to destroy the hundreds of babies heading into their brief spans under the sun. Their genes have dictated what they must do, and for how long. My genes have shaped me differently; fight-or-flight still operates, but there’s an added layer of rational thought and reflection that no spider can claim (yet). I could stomp and squash, but that wouldn’t help anyone. It would definitely not help the generation of new argiopes or shamrock orb weavers or jumping spiders looking to find homes around my yard.

Squashing the newborns, however, might immensely please the hordes of blackflies and mosquitoes that are tired of being stuck to spider threads and unceremoniously ingested. Then these winged terrors would be happily available to sample my skin. Now, I can’t find much about blood-sucking insects that I would call beautiful. The way they fit into the food chain, and nourish countless birds, is very significant. If there’s something to admire about them, this would be it. I watch the swallows careen all over the sky and understand that sometimes, if you can’t actually be lovely yourself, you can at least make loveliness happen elsewhere.

That’s what spiders do too. Every glittering September dawn reminds me that I would miss them terribly if they were suddenly extinguished. Shelob and her kind are fables. The reality is less exciting, perhaps, but far more reassuring to a gardener’s heart – far more tempting to a camera’s lens.

Arachnids of the world, arise and fulfill your destiny! You, too, are glorious and there is no need for you to weep.

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The List of the Gone Forever

My father liked to read the obituaries in our local daily paper. He once remarked to me that someday, his name would be there and friends would see it and exclaim, “Oh look – Bert Levy’s dead!” I thought it was quite morbid but he seemed not to mind the idea.

Eventually, his name did show up among those sterile columns and I imagine it was noticed, with appropriate responses. In those days, obituaries could not contain much extraneous information. We weren’t even permitted to name his granddaughter. There was none of the “Memorial Extravaganza” that we see now, with tributes that go on and on for so long, I seldom get through to the finish. I was sad, though, that Natalia couldn’t have been identified, as our family was so small and she was the only member of her generation. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but omission can leave a vacancy down the years that is never remedied. I still have a laminated copy of that obituary, tacked to my wall, and Natalia is still not there.

My mother, in her turn, took to relishing the death notices. She outlived her husband by twenty years, which gave her extra time to enjoy them. I started taking a cursory look, because she wanted to share and my commiseration appeared to please her. With each new loss, her day achieved a certain highlight. Their days had been numbered and ended; hers had not. She would dab at her eyes if needed, in token expression of sorrow. But by then, having endured two strokes, she had clearly downplayed the immediacy and intensity of her grieving. As a younger woman, she reacted to loss with considerable emotion. In more advanced years, her attitude was briefly mournful but resigned. Another one gone; another one committed to a page in memory or a note scrawled on an old photo.

Now I, in my turn, am moving along the timeline allotted to me. And I’ve begun to scan the obituaries, albeit with less eagerness than my 90-year-old mother once felt.  If I should reach that age, it will still take awhile. It’s hard to reconcile my garden plots, not to mention all the physical effort they entail, with that singular plot in Willowbank Cemetery where nobody does much, except to be mowed-over, and my father’s mortal remains are mentioned on the stone but actually went into the ocean somewhere.  At this point, I’d rather plant than be planted. The hour of our departure, nonetheless, is uncertain.

And now I’m starting to understand why obituary-study has become something of an obsession. It’s not the loss in the present we acknowledge, so much as the removal of someone who once presented so many possibilities for us. I’ve begun to recognize former classmates among the growing roster of the departed. And with each new name, I cast back through the shadows until I stand before that person and conjure as much of the face as I can. Sometimes it’s an indistinct blob; sometimes it is clear and detailed. If the individual was a man, I occasionally reflect that he might have been my companion in old age, my lover and spouse, had other elements of our youth been more in sync. “I might have loved you,” I think. “I could have been your soulmate.” A few of these absent friends might actually have been the objects of my youthful adoration. I had crushes, just like anyone else. I lusted in my heart after various impossibilities, and they always chose another girl. I learned to control my imagination and concentrate on being funny and quirky. The hotties – had that word been current back then – in my high school class never included me. I used to believe I was indifferent but still … it would have been nice to shake off ardent pursuers now and then. Hell, I even got turned down by the one guy I worked up the nerve to invite to our annual Sadie Hawkins dance. Everyone went to that dance, except me. You know you’re a loser in the gender game when that happens. I never forgot it, obviously. Dogpatch is long gone and the whole concept of gender equality has liberated women from the waiting process, by which they are the chosen and not the choosers.  And I remember that stupid dance rejection!

Even at the senior prom, my escort – a dear friend – invited me as a substitute for his real girlfriend, who didn’t want to go. I think they’re married now, and older like me, and presumably poring over their own sets of obituaries. I hold no hard feelings in that case, because he was kind and attentive. He gave me a wrist corsage, which made me feel pretty cool. Not pretty, just cool. There was an incident of orange pop spilled down the front of my pink formal, although I did that to myself.  But I digress, since he’s still with us as far as I’m aware.

But the dead call to me from their newsprint rest.  Most are male, since they tend not to make it as far as the women. I speculate on what they must have felt, growing sicker and sicker, loosening their hold on an abbreviated span that might not have brought them all they’d hoped it would. Several from our last school reunion, in the early 1990s, have taken their places on the List of the Gone Forever. I could not have imagined never seeing them again, when we reconnected for those few days of catching-up.  Bruce, Harold, Gary … all the names written in water and washed away. There are more I could contribute. Anyone who was a part of  us all can add their own selections.

A few, however, are  female and some have passed away far too early. Beverly, Lorraine, Joanne, Phyllis … I think of them often too, these companions along the paths of my childhood and adolescence. Both boys and girls join hands and dance around me, here at my desk, crowding the room with their energy. They strut and sing and crack endless jokes and make silly but hilarious comments in class. They drive our long-suffering grade seven teacher, Miss West, to distraction. They assemble yearbooks and plan dances and prepare for earnest debates that we never win. They organize and attend Army Cadet inspections out on the elementary-school grounds, crammed with spectators and fluttery teenage princesses with teased hair and tiny cameras.  We try our best to cheer for our lame-duck sports teams (when your school doesn’t even have a gym, athletic prowess belongs to the kids in the next town). The girls giggle over boys, new rock stars and movie actors. They adore Debbie Reynolds and hate Liz Taylor, twirl in their  full skirts, suffocate in clouds of pink and exhale dime-store perfume, compare the exact placement of the parallel ribs in their bobby sox, and secretly gloat as their bra sizes increase. They flip through 16 Magazines, drive me around when they get their licenses since I’m a year too young for my own, swim at Lumsden dam and sit with me around a fire with marshmallows and stories. I go home smoky and filled with yearning. I can never become what so many of them are without even trying – popular, cute, socially smart. They accept me, though. I guess being a comical geek has its perks after all.

So they recede as their memorial notices appear. The tide brings them to me, suspends them, pulls them away.  A scatter of photographs washes to shore and I squint at their blurriness, before the last the outlines dissolve. I don’t need them, though. I don’t need obituaries or even memories locked in my brain.

I have them all inside me, woven like strands of my DNA. What I am now, these people have made me. They could not have known this, of course, and now they never will. But I know, so maybe that’s enough. And someday, maybe someone will say, “Oh, look – Brenda’s dead!” I hope when that happens, the reader will add, “Now, she was a character. I’ll miss her.”

Image

early reflections

dawn on the river, June 6 2013

Crepuscular. When I was a child, that word suggested rather negative ideas; perhaps I associated it with corpuscles or the black crepe one drapes around a dead-room in Victorian melodrama. Its meaning has been transformed by the passage of years and many walks among shadows barely touched by light.

This morning, I awaken very early and decide that 5:30 is a perfectly fine hour to wander my little Eden. The grass is drenched, of course, and my sock-bound feed are constricted in cold. I should really remove them – the socks, that is, not the feet – clumsy though they can be sometimes. But I want to sit with my coffee and watch the morning unfold. I know this is an imperfect world, fraught with horror and chaos, riven with possibilities for evil and often interrupted by alarmist sirens. However, this fresh dawn, where I am right now, must surely be perfect. I would be false to myself if I were to ignore that.

Out on the Tusket River stillwater, which curves along the edge of my land, mist has cast its gauzy veil across the water. Cormorants, ever anxious for their catch-of-the-day and not bound by any clock, are poised in dense lines along the protruding rocks. Gulls skim the trees and current, more quietly than usual – perhaps out of respect for the general stillness of the hour. To the east of the river’s bend, a necklace of circles breaks the surface as fish, unaware of their audience, celebrate a return from spawning and their impending reunion with the sea. Some will not make it. The cormorants and gulls are good at what they do.

A great blue heron glides above me, too suddenly for my camera to catch. These birds rise later than the more common predators; they take flight toward the west, upriver – perhaps enjoying the air through their pinions and thinking of nothing much. What they lack in magnificent voices is more than offset by their elegance and adaptability. Herons, eagles and hummingbirds give my hours of photographic pleasure. I love all birds but these three, all different from each other, contribute the most material for my lens.

I think again of crepuscular as the sunlight explores with gentle fingers among my new-leaved trees. Its beams don’t yet touch the ground but they turn the mist to a warm drapery that blows and billows around the cormorants, the stones, and me. Dylan Thomas speaks of “the close and holy darkness” but for me, this half-shine is holy too. It reminds me that hope inevitably outlines the edges of trees and fences and buildings, and of us as well. We are the moving shades within the light. Behind us, it rays out and shifts as we move. We rise as the sun does, strengthened moment by moment, tentative at first – then brave and undeniable. My only concern is to illuminate without burning. Such light can be fierce if unguarded. I would rather be a candle than a flare.

And so the day hurries forward. In the maples and oaks, warblers raise their greetings. A veery begins his carol, hidden visually but not aurally. How can a mere physical body ever match such sound? It is astonishing, this cascade, a pitcher of melody poured over my head – the small singer’s blessing. No one can hear a veery or wood thrush and consider the day a loss.

Now the light has descended. It shatters and bends though dewdrops and webs and the translucence of opening flowers. I search for a spider’s midnight efforts, but there are no web artists alive yet. These are young creatures, learning the ways of their kind, looping their experimental strands from spruce boughs. The parents – such skilled weavers of autumn magic – have vanished forever. We learn, and create, and excel. Then all that awareness is consigned to the earth. Or is it?

The morning is fully bright now. A loon runs across the mirrored surface, takes off, calls back to me. The fish have stopped their dance and continued their journey home. Traffic begins to move on my country road, and dust replaces ground fog. The world of humanity intrudes; the world of water, silence and crepuscular light withdraws. Tonight it will return for another quick reminder that it still exists. I am content with that.

– Brenda

running across the water gull-dance

light in the dew

light in the dew

triple sunrays

triple sunrays