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Not-So-Auld-Lang-Syne

I am thinking today of my friends who have said good-bye to loved ones in 2015, and are about to enter a year that their lost companions will never experience. For those gone to their sleep, 2015 was the conclusion of their road – a way station to somewhere else. We all have that final year waiting to be inscribed on our own memorials. But unless we are very unlucky today, 2015 will not be it.

My husband was a newshound. Almost as long as I knew him, at 7:30 the NBC Nightly News was his focus for half an hour. Nothing else intruded. He watched other news media as well, but for some reason that was his favourite as he grew older. He also enjoyed CNN. If a breaking story caught his attention, he’d turn to various sources for updates. At the supper hour, Canadian channels predominated – CTV or ATV, CBC, Global. The daily paper then supplied more in-depth coverage of stories already known. We were a well-informed family.

When he was hospitalized at the end, I arranged for TV rental. However, he hardly glanced at the news broadcasts, and I realized then how very ill he was. He had detached himself from the world around him. Letting go of ongoing events seemed so uncharacteristic of the man. Now, looking back, I understand that he had no further need to follow these situations. He knew it wouldn’t matter and that time, for him, was about to stop. I would have to pursue the developing stories on my own. I have not watched NBC Nightly News since then.

How he would have loved the Justin Trudeau groundswell, the election, the excitement of transition! How he would have relished the endless debates about everything from Syrian refugees to the faltering Yarmouth ferry service to the plans for Mother Canada! He would have wept for Paris and Ankara and San Bernardino. He would have recalled his own arrival through Pier 21 as the Syrian newcomers were welcomed to Halifax. He’d now be tracing the rise of Donald Trump. shaking his head in disbelief, and poring over TIME magazine for each election installment. But for him, “now” only goes as far as April 21, 2015. Whatever has come next, I cannot know.

So what is time, anyway? Is it linear? I don’t think so, nor do the great temporal physicists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, but we have to make it that way so our human brains can comprehend its passage. We assign numbers to the line and mark our progress by referring to them. But the whole idea of time is inherently a comparison between various states of existence that constantly change. If the universe were static – motionless – would we still measure time or even think about it? Would it matter? New Year’s Eve would become rather irrelevant, I should imagine. We’d be buying our champagne and sparklers just for the heck of it.

“People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between the past, the present and the future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein

Indeed. We choose our illusions, then, and live with them because to do otherwise would be too much for our minds to handle. Plato’s theory of forms suggests that ideas existed in perfection, separate from their reflections in our own world. In their “place beyond heaven” (Phaedrus), these forms pattern the universe, and we imitate them but can never quite achieve their purity. All, then, is imitative and – while intelligible to our senses – not quite truthful. And what we perceive isn’t always real. Colours change with the light. What looks blue to me might look purple to you. Think of “the dress” that took Facebook by storm a few months ago. What colour was it, really? And who gets to decide?

Time and Illusion. Or are they the same thing? Time AS illusion? I’m just a poet. I can’t begin to go there.

But the year turns tonight and the last people to die in 2015 will have done so. The gravestone-carvers will inscribe that final “5” and move on to a “6”. Those whom time is leaving behind will see neither peace nor war to come; neither celebration nor grief. They remain eternally in the span to which they have been assigned. We have to walk away and if we turn to look back, there is only silence. Snow, perhaps. An odd salt taste on our lips.

We – not being dead – confront whatever waits for us. We ride in an open carriage, ancient and unfamiliar, while all around us the engines roar by, or above, or under. Space stations orbit, jets trail across the horizon, race cars circle a child’s playroom track. But we’re huddled in an Emily Dickinson poem, almost 130 years after she set down her pen forever. We see only the back of our driver, who handles the reins with ease and confidence. Clearly, there’s only one direction to be taken. The horses clatter on stones that spark fire from their heels. We can look toward the very edge of the universe if we keep going. There’s Polaris beaming us north, and Orion swinging his sword arm in his solitary hunt. The blurred galaxies swim like flecks on velvet. Somewhere, angels are caroling, or maybe that’s just the solar wind heading toward its own fate. It has a low voice not everyone can hear.

I shrug off my worn overcoat of mourning, and put on hope like a lap robe for the journey, to warm my feet. In the crowded darkness, a watchmaker adjusts the minute and second hands to mark this midnight hour. I do not believe he is blind, as some might call him. He simply has no need for optics. He can feel the rightness of things.

Then come the Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels. Someone across the river sets off a string of explosions. I raise my glass to the window, seeing only my own face reflected in its pane. The reality of myself – or just the idea of me? The wine glints in starlight. A Parisian baby opens her eyes for her first astonished look at life. A very old man in Corner Brook smiles and wishes “Happy New Year” to his fragile wife. A shopkeeper in New Delhi kisses his new bride and listens to a ghazal singer from the street. Slowly, with great precision, the planet moves through her own dance.

High over my roof, wild geese vee across a skein of clouds, heading for somewhere else. No map required. They know the way.

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Noel? No … Hell!

The holiday season is well underway now – concerts, gatherings, staff parties at many establishments. Excited children, dancing lights, Santa at the local mall. Stores with groaning shelves, carolers in red velvet, cheerful music wafting through all available airspace. Trees glowing in corners; menorahs gleaming on tables or in windows.

Indeed, a festive and celebratory month.

Except when it’s not. Some folks view this time of year with dread and even despair. They may be battling illness, whether or not it is obvious to the casual observer. They may be reeling from the impact of a recent loss within their circle of loved ones. They may be financially pushed to that cold stone wall which offers no doorway out. They might be struggling to sustain a relationship, or mourning a breakup they may not have wanted. Every balm for their wounds will turn to salt, and the salt to tears.

They could be estranged from family members, unemployed and unable to find work, recently-moved into an unfamiliar place. There might not even be a home they can claim, other than a doorstep, a bench, a temporary shelter. This is the season when the homeless feel the cold. This is the season when fires – meant for heating houses – end up destroying those houses instead. And this is the season when children go without the gifts their classmates enjoy, because these gifts cannot be provided.

And so the people who stand outside endless, glittering windows must confront the joyous displays, the songs, the endless “Ho Ho Ho” messages, with a certain bitterness at the brutality of fate. These are people within whom no candles are lighted. Broken people, burdened people – voiceless, isolated. People with little hope of relief and little expectation of the simple kindnesses many of us take for granted. Afraid to ask anyone for support; reluctant to seek help for themselves, although they may do it for their children. Too proud to come forward and search for a loving face in the crowd. Terrified of being judged, and knowing full well that, indeed, judgment is being passed upon them.

No shared Facebook meme will make a difference to those who most need comfort. No “post on your wall for an hour” will help them. No “I say Merry Christmas” preaching will breach their sadness. Many won’t even have computer access. Others will be craving a personal communication that never comes. Some might even retreat from the internet – or at least from social media – until this whole glitzy, glorious, glaring time is over and the bells have rung its death. Then they’ll return, quietly and without explanation. For them, the Christmas weeks are their signal to disappear.

Joy to the World … but the world can shrink to a bubble for some. It can blow away, carrying with it all the rainbow swirls that shine so brightly. Then the night becomes silent, indeed.

An Absence of Sun

People speak of the “dark night of the soul”. It is real. It is overwhelming. You wake up to it and wonder where the door is. Every step is barefoot on glass that has no shine. The cup sits at your left hand, glimmering with its burden, and you beg for it to be taken away. But of course, it isn’t. You have filled it yourself. Every sin you have ever committed – even those you’ve forgotten – swirls in its dregs. Every regret, every sorrow, every wrong done to others – they’re all part of that elixir. You stare at it, terrified to drink. But you will. Inevitably, you will.

This is the time for family – if you have one – to gather and shut the drapes against a darkfall that many will never endure. This is the time for friends to toot their horns as they pass, their headlights leading your pathway out. They have, after all, thought to acknowledge you, and thoughts are another kind of beam through the dusk. But on this night, you’re lost to family, though they may be unaware of it. Friends pass and follow their own destinies. They don’t see that overturned sky over your head. And they couldn’t raise it, should they want to try. You must protect them from that knowledge, and from that attempt.

So you draw the blankness around yourself like a robe. You turn off your porch lantern and cancel the warmth falling on your yard, where the grass is frozen. No sleepy birds murmur in this winter of your discontent. In the old days, wagons ringed a comforting fire. Wolves and night terrors dared not intrude. But there are no wagons now. No fire but a candle clumsily lighted. And the wolves tiptoe closer, baring the teeth of those who hate you. Sadly, they far outnumber those who love, because after all, this is your darkness. You have shaped it through your own pain.

Because no one is entirely without fault, and you understand this, you’ve muddled along as best you can manage. No one believes you won’t keep on doing it. You err because that’s the human thing. You get back to the road and survive a few more years. Your twist your ankle or shatter your heart as you fall off the margin of that road and of those years. Then you either limp forever after, or work out the injury and build yourself stronger for awhile.

And in the irony of ironies, chances are you will be noted most for the brilliance of your smile. You’ve learned to hide everything behind it. You’ve cultivated it like a flower that blooms best after sunset. And when people say, “You have the most beautiful smile,” you feel reassured. You have hidden well the shadow that would turn your face to a mask of grief.

But the dark night still comes. It closes down around you, the way cooling stones trap water. Perhaps this is how crystals feel, locked in their geodes, unable to shine for anyone until the rock is broken. The risk involves smashing the best and most beautiful of those gems. Escape entails a cost. Something inevitably cracks.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, indeed. You need not raise that particular question. The ringing drowns out all other music now. It goes on and on; it shakes the windows. You block your ears and it swells inside without the slightest softening.

But like the winecup, poured at your behest, you can identify where this tolling started. There’s no need to ask. You’ve hung that damned bell in your own soul, after all. Now you’ve hauled on the ropes, it won’t stop. It peals into that not-so-good night where no one goes gentle, and most don’t go at all. Only you, and only now.

You walk into the darkness on a carillon trail, unspooling silence behind you.

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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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