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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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A Brief Gathering of Old Classmates

Class of ‘Sixty-Four

All our decades somersault, deposit us
in this circle of cross-legged strangers
whom I almost recognize. We put them
together like a wall of fragments: eyelid,
earlobe, bone. Laugh or grimace.

I cough without sound; nothing must smack
of mortality. We balance carefully, attentive
to hips and knees and feet, spines
no longer flexed like spring birches.

Backlight from a window casts our runes.
Her fine hair glows angelic. His shoulder
curves, a hillside traced on shadow.
Your eyes belong to the boy hidden
in them. We study each other, look away,
people the spaces with our own memories.

Dust spins in sloped rays that settle
on the floor. I think of stars slowly turning
until one finds us worthy, offers us life.
A hopeful fly circles my glass, perhaps
meaning to drown herself in bliss.

We speak quietly at first; explore
this new country. The room recedes
while stories form around us. The past
rebounds off our hostess’s painting
of a young girl, playing her flute forever.

Somebody mentions band concerts,
army cadets, gym, rifles. Male affairs.
I once stood with my swirly-skirt friends
– proper ladies – and wondered why.

But I have worn a dress today. I tuck
my legs, wish I could sit like a lotus,
then unfold, petals sharp as blades.
Glory from the mud. Surprise bloom
after such long and secret growth.

My chardonnay splashes, magnifies
the coffee-table grain. It’s like viewing
the universe through the wrong end
of a telescope. What we have become
is a contraction, yet the detail shines
with greater clarity than it ever did.

Science teaches us the definition
of gravity but we need no illustration
beyond a breast displaced, a chin
dropped, a belly tugging free from its
moorings. We bow to the dominion
of a force far greater than ourselves.

Yes. Gravity, regal and cruel, Henry VIII
of physical laws. I briefly rub the back
of my neck and this room shudders
with the ring of a crown falling. No one
else notices. You refill my drink and grin.

Brenda Levy Tate

for my Wolfville High School companions

Looking Back, Standing Still, Thinking Forward

One month ago today, my husband fell. It was Good Friday, and thus began his descent into the final weeks of his mortal existence. He entered the ER as a man still fighting, angry at fate, determined to get out of there as soon as he could. Sadly, that vital man never left the hospital.

On his darkest day, spring had extended a tentative hand. I’d expected to take him for a rambling drive along the shore, as he so loved to do. Instead, an ambulance bore him away. My drives will be solo now. He will be my unseen passenger, gazing through the windows as the road unfolds and rolls behind me. So much changes in a month!

Today, May 3rd, is one of those mornings when I can truly say, “God’s in His Heaven; all’s right with the world.” Of course, that applies only to my small corner of the world. In Nepal, nothing is right. In Baltimore, the aftermath of devastation will take time to clean up and heal. In many places, life is a struggle and the odds of survival are far lower than our own. We would be foolish to imagine ourselves the center of any universe, great or little.

Still, all I can do is celebrate the sunshine here. Where is Heaven, anyway? Is it a location? A spiritual state? An energy field? Another dimension? If God – either gender – is there, can He or She also be here? Do the two realms overlap? Will those of us in our material bodies ever connect with those who have moved to another form?

Is David wherever Heaven might be located? I’m assuming he’s in a place of rest, grace and healing. He deserves to be. He’d often claimed to be an atheist but he quite probably wasn’t. Agnostic, maybe, unable to know for sure and always up for a lively argument. But not a man in denial: his massive library testifies to his exploration of the vast and distant frontiers of science, history, philosophy, art, religion – everything that stands as testament to humanity’s finer (and lesser) achievements. Everything that makes us look up in awe and wonder. He has his answers now.

At the last, I choose to believe he accepted the existence of another, incomprehensible dwelling-place and of the Power that invited him to be there. He was alert and aware when matters of the soul were shared with him. His dear friend, John Symonds, sensed the strength of his acceptance. David had no voice, no movement, nothing but his eyes and ears. He had been reduced to vision and sound – the basics, his mind no longer concerned with food or drink or any other physical act. So he saw and he heard – watched and listened. That was enough, I think.

Who else might have been present in that room? His father, whom he never knew? His mother, with whom he needed to reconcile? His old friends long gone? The shouting boys of his childhood, the companions of his middle years? Whose faces were in the group assembled to lead him home?

In the end, he chose to leave for that unknown realm and departed in peace. Today as I work in the gardens, David will be in my thoughts. He so enjoyed his zero gravity chair, where he’d read and listen to the river. Cash was inevitably curled in the grass beside him. Gollum – who adored David and perhaps is with him again – slept in his little grave not far away. Nothing and no one is ever truly lost. This morning, I’ll walk across this bit of land and tend my flowers. I won’t be alone. The knitting of the heart’s bones will be slow. But they will knit in time.

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In Remembrance

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Today, we remember the lost, the fallen, who often lie in waters or fields unknown except to God, without recorded names – without anyone now alive who can recall their faces.

I think of Ezekiel’s vision, the Valley of Dry Bones, when dusty skeletons are clothed in flesh and rise, a vast army, to stand before us. We are about to clothe in flesh – for an hour’s communion – these honoured dead. They were the children of Israel in Ezekiel’s dream but now, they are the children of all humanity, friend or foe, resting together. For this one day, our own are standing again; we can see them on the periphery of the crowd, gathered among trees, walking down cemetery rows. They lean fold-armed beside their old comrades and circle the poppied cenotaphs; they touch the shoulders of young cadets who stand watch with heads bowed. They pass as the wind, and a teenager in immaculate uniform is moved to wonder at this; at the feeling that someone has gently touched her face in greeting. The old man beside her has no curiosity. He already knows what and who it was.

These great armies and squadrons and fleets marched, soared or sailed forth with hope and resolution, bound for their own destinies, praying they would not fail. They must have been daunted by the enormity of this task, frightened by their own frailty, unable to dwell on that fear lest they give in to it. They would have been anxious to return home at the end of it all. And while many did survive, numberless millions did not. No one endures any conflict untouched; if the body remains unmarked, the mind carries its own gashes. The living, too, have experienced a form of death. It is heavy on them; it is in them, in their eyes and hands and voices. They have given up something that most young people take for granted: some call it innocence. I believe it is, in part, the idea that there can be permanent victory or defeat with clear boundaries between them.

But in any war, although I’ve shared only in my father’s reflections rather than the actual experience, I suspect that clarity might be difficult to grasp. Who, really, is the enemy? Is it the kid who was driven to fight because his community or national leaders demanded it? The commander who knows that no matter what he might do to protect them, his men will be placed at dreadful risk and that many will fall? The artist sketching a propaganda poster in some stone building far removed from the guns? The father desperate to protect his family from threat of destruction? The German submariner who enters a Derry pub and finds himself surrounded by sailors from an opposing navy, men who offer him a foaming pint and clear a place at the bar?

We can easily recognize the brutal and corrupt leadership whose motives have forced such horrors on everyone else. They are almost unreachable and they destroy anyone who dares to confront their authority. But between these war-dealers and their adversaries, there strides that vast army of clothed bones – youth whose parents loved them, hugged them, cried when they left home. They march for the side of evil, or for the side of right and truth. We can tell the difference, of course. Or so we believe. But the lines blur over time. Monsters are destroyed, warring parties reconcile, treaties are established and the world lurches forward. The dead sleep well, even among those who have killed them. They cannot differentiate. Only we can do that.

Still, every combatant understands the price of victory.They have all paid their tokens in advance, but the coinage weighs more for some than for others. And now they come to us, full of love for this nation they have so proudly served, and asking that we remember – not for themselves, but for us. That we acknowledge the apathy, the callousness, the depths of both greed and hatred that bring devastation to humankind. That we choose to take another road and give everything we own to keep it secure.

Surely, we can promise them this. While war brings its uncertainties, the protection of peace is a choice that few can argue. We must promise them our best and finest efforts, in memory of theirs.