My single Christmas gift this year. From someone who has not known me long, but who clearly knows me.
Time for a bit more feckin’ culture, mate.
Robert Browning (1812–89)
MY first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.
For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
As when a sick man very near to death
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”)
While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves,
And still the man hears all, and only craves
He may not shame such tender love and stay.
Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?
So, quiet as despair, I turn’d from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path the pointed. All the day
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.
For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remain’d to do.
So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starv’d ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You ’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove.
No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In the strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See
Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,
“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
’T is the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”
If there push’d any ragged thistle=stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopp’d; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruis’d as to baulk
All hope of greenness? ’T is a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades prick’d the mud
Which underneath look’d kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!
Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red, gaunt and collop’d neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
I shut my eyes and turn’d them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I ask’d one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards—the soldier’s art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.
Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he us’d. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.
Giles then, the soul of honor—there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good—but the scene shifts—faugh! what hangman hands
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!
Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain.
Will the night send a howlet of a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.
A sudden little river cross’d my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d by, might have been a bath
For the fiend’s glowing hoof—to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
So petty yet so spiteful All along,
Low scrubby alders kneel’d down over it;
Drench’d willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate’er that was, roll’d by, deterr’d no whit.
Which, while I forded,—good saints, how I fear’d
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
—It may have been a water-rat I spear’d,
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.
Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage—
The fight must so have seem’d in that fell cirque.
What penn’d them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Then came a bit of stubb’d ground, once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood—
Bog, clay, and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
Now blotches rankling, color’d gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like thus;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.
And just as far as ever from the end,
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,
Sail’d past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penn’d
That brush’d my cap—perchance the guide I sought.
For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains—with such name to grace
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surpris’d me,—solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.
Yet half I seem’d to recognize some trick
Of mischief happen’d to me, God knows when—
In a bad perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts—you ’re inside the den.
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Couch’d like two bulls lock’d horn in horn in fight,
While, to the left, a tall scalp’d mountain … Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!
What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
Not see? because of night perhaps?—Why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,—
“Now stab and end the creature—to the heft!”
Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it toll’d
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,—
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knell’d the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”
This morning I awoke at three, with the slightest of red wine hangovers. Damn. That wine was almost $7.50 a bottle. I thought it was worth investing that much to get the good stuff. The remaining half bottle can go into cooking. I drank a half litre of mineral water to rehydrate.
The night was warm. I was hot and sticky. Since I had to wander down to the ablution block anyway, I took a towel with me and enjoyed a cold shower. I didn’t want to wear my sweaty nightclothes after getting clean, so I walked back to the camp with my towel wrapped around my waist. This gave me some pride, because not too long ago, that towel would not reach around my waist, let alone overlap enough to be worn.
Back in the cabin, I sorted through the pile of clean laundry, which I still had not folded and put away, for something to wear. I can see my home, and my life, is a shambles. I decided today would be a day for the Doing of Things and the beginning of a New Attitude.
Today, Things must be Done. The Doing of Things must be undertaken with alacrity and determination. It is time to tidy up the physical aspects of my life and put new rules into effect.
- If it does not have a suitable permanent place, it must go.
- It must be stored away when not being used
- If it does not serve a useful or essential function, or bring me joy, it must go.
- If it makes me sad, it must go.
- If it is not being used, and is not a necessary contingency item such as a tool or tow rope, it must go.
- if it might come in handy some day, but I can’t specify under which reasonably likely circumstances, it must go
- Before anything new comes in, something must go
- I live alone. If it is a duplicate, and surplus to requirements, it must go. Exception: two spare sets of cutlery, crockery, glasses. In case any of my few remaining friends turn up.
Rubbish shall go in the bin. Items that may be of use to someone shall go to either the Dogs charity shop, or the Hospice charity shop. I reject the Sallies because of their medieval attitude towards gays, and the Vinnies because they are pawns of the greatest criminal organisation in the world, that has the resources and power to end world hunger, poverty and overpopulation in a heartbeat. But won’t.
Having made that decision, I went back to bed and slept until ten. After coffee and brunch, I shall get started.
Now that I’ve had a nap, and a glass of wine with my dinner, my reflections on today have given me some insights. It was indeed embarrassing; both for the GP with an unnecessarily concerned patient, and for the patient.
I too quickly leapt to a conclusion. When I received the previous call back, I made the appointment by phone, and asked for a hint of what the doctor wanted to discuss. Of course the receptionist was not falling for that one. This time, I didn’t ring, but just booked via the booking app. If I had rung, no doubt some confusion and distress might have been avoided. Or perhaps not.
No harm, no foul. A lesson learned.
My own (over)reaction ranged from considering the simple possibility that I was just going to lose a bit more of my arm, to the increasingly more sinister implications of chemo, radiation, drastic surgery and a short and painful prognosis. I missed the one I should have considered first; it’s probably nothing serious.
I also thought about where I was right now. From a medical standpoint, possibly the best possible place in the world. I have free medical treatment in a country well equipped and experienced with skin cancer.
I am between 2,500 and 3,600 km away from my closest friends and relatives in any direction. I’m paying the price of having been too far for too long from my immediate and extended family. I explored some time ago the possibility of returning to NZ. My visit only confirmed you can’t go back. Even returning would have to be a going forward. I couldn’t see the way.
My local support group consists of two very kind new acquaintances. I have one person with whom I have regular long distance telephone conversations, a friend who has experience with basal cell carcinoma. It used to be we only had dogs, emus and cooking as common interests. I’d have preferred to stick to that.
Today was, therefore, a reminder of what it is to be alone and ageing. As if I needed one.
Today is the anniversary of the second of the two most important days of my life. Two events that both completely changed my view of the world and my place in it.
This is the anniversary of when I fell completely, and utterly, in love. Once again.
The first thing I learned when my second daughter was born was that there is always room in the heart for one more. I loved my first daughter, now a cute and precocious two year old, so much that sometimes during the time of expectancy I had been genuinely concerned I might not be able to love this newcomer as well. It was a fear that vanished without trace on her arrival.
That arrival was just as fraught with difficulty as was her sister’s before. Distressed foetal syndrome and a caesarean. But this time I was allowed to be present. Watching a caesarean is fascinating and frightening. I concentrated on holding June’s hand and being reassuring.
The surgeon jokingly warned me that if I fainted, he would just stand on me and carry on with his work. June was conscious. She’d had an epidural. The previous time she had been under general anaesthetic, so this must have been even more frightening for her than for me.
When the hospital staff held up the still and silent chocolate-blue child my heart stopped. I’ve never, ever, been more frightened. In fact I realised at that moment, I had never really been frightened before at all. I cannot express the dread I felt just then.
Suddenly she let out a cry and miraculously turned pink right then and there in front of me. I treasure that memory as I do the one where I was introduced to her sister, so tiny in an incubator, tubes up her nose, two years before.
I shall never stop loving June for what she went through to bring those two into the world. If ever frustration or resentment arises when I think of how things eventually turned out, I remind myself of this.
I shall never stop loving those two girls, for the meaning they brought into my existence. Flawed as it must have been, parenthood is the one thing that really gave my life any significance.
These wonderful young women that June and I made.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
by Mary Oliver
It is true I find solace in preparing and eating food. It has been clearly demonstrated over the years by the fact I always got fat whenever life threw me into the dark places where the black dog dwells. It is why I named my cookery blog Kummerspeck. The German word for comfort food, which translates literally as “grief bacon”.
Those two plates, along with some sweetcorn and a banana smoothie, are my food for today. Delicious, and well within my daily kilojoule budget. Enough spare for a glass of wine or a nip of whiskey before bed.
I won’t deny I still seek solace. I live alone. Far from those I care most about. I have friends, and cheerful acquaintances but the people who contact me to check on my well-being are not those one might expect. Still. Somebody cares.
I still find solace in food. Now I seek out food that is satisfying, tasty, and good for me. It turns out quite surprisingly that with very few exceptions, such as kippers, the foods that are good for me are the very same foods that were bad for me. The only differences are a little in the preparation, and a lot in the portion size.
I have taken this concept of mindful eating seriously to heart. My taste buds are adjusting to less salt. I have really been concentrating on experiencing the appearance, colour, texture, aroma of my food as well as the taste and mouth sensations experienced as I chew, dissolve and swallow. I am distinguishing the umami, salt, bitter and sweet, as well as the aromatic components. I had a couple of steamed sweetcorn cobs today, unsalted, with a nob of unsalted butter. I could taste things I had never really given any attention to before.
This blog is more and more becoming a journal. A letter to myself. Which is how I started out.