Category: personal

An Agoraphobic Abroad

Part I

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.

Tsk, tsk.

I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?

I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.

You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.

The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.

I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…

But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…

Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—

Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.

Parthenon (Athens)

Parthenon (Athens)

Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.

The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:

Stargazer

Stargazer

Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.

Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.

Meteora (Greece)

Meteora (Greece)

I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.

Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:

Varnavas

I am here
Lord
find me
on my
lofty perch
do not
deny me
your presence
forgive me
if I err
catch me
if I fall.

From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.

Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.

Istanbul (back street)

Istanbul (back street)

I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.

There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.

We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).

And then there was Troy…

(To be continued)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

The Price of Independence

cover,jpegI recently “celebrated” my 52nd birthday and, not unusually, I think, spent part of the day musing and reflecting on my life arc, decisions made, paths chosen.

It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.

Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.

And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.

Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.

And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.

But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.

Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.

Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.

Anything but that screaming silence.

Amen.

flare

Enchanted days

fenceThis post is long overdue—hey, what can I tell you, it’s been crazy around here. Like a zoo without keepers.

That nasty bout of sciatica (see: previous posts) threw off my summer schedule and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Summertime (for whatever reason) is the season when I usually bear down; most of the major projects I’ve undertaken in the past decade were initiated from June-August. Who can figure these things? You’d think I’d be more creative and productive during our infamously long Canadian winters but that just isn’t the case. When the days heat up, so do I.

We’ve managed a fair amount of traveling, as you can tell from the accompanying pictures.

A trip to the sand hills (west side of the province, stretching from Leader, almost down to Swift Current) and we just got back from a few days at Waskesiu Lake (Prince Albert National Park) , hanging out with some people very dear to our hearts. Two very different ecosystems—we’re blessed with a variety of them in this big, tall province of ours and Sherron and I are determined to visit as many as we can. I’d really like to get a good look at the huge sand dunes on the south side of Lake Athabasca but that’s way up in the boonies, inaccessible to those whose wallets are on the thin side. I’m drawn to desert climes—there has to be a reason why three of the world’s major religions have their origins in the dry, pitiless environs of the Middle East. Something about a wasteland, something to do with privation, life/existence whittled down to the bare minimum.

While I was prostrate with back pain there wasn’t a whole lot I could manage. I either dozed (I was on quite a few pain killers), watched Adult Swim ‘toons (“Rick & Morty” was a favorite distraction) on a borrowed iPad or roughed out storyboards for a couple of film projects I’ve been pondering for at least ten years. If I had to pick one thing to slot in at the top of my “bucket list”, it would be writing and directing a full-length, independently produced movie. Both of my scenarios could be shot on a shoestring here in Saskatchewan and neither would be over 70 minutes long. If an hour and change was good enough for Val Lewton, it’s good enough for me.

I won’t go into detail, but one of them is intended as an homage to German “Expressionist” films of the 1920s and the other is an end-of-the-world saga that’s also a nod to weird, obscure 1970s flix like Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”.

In other words, don’t be expecting to see either movie coming to your local Cineplex or Galaxy any time soon. bark

But I felt it was important to at least get them down on paper so once I was able to sit at my desk again, I typed up my notes and concocted two film “treatments” (30 pages each) that summarized the plots and major characters. Done.

Now I find myself in a strange, unfamiliar place, at least as far as I’m concerned:

I have no pending projects, no looming deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise.

My desk is clear.

I can’t recall this happening before. Now what do I do? Aye, that’s the question…and over the coming weeks I’m going to be feeding a lot of ideas and odd notions into the ol’ hopper. Possible stories, short films, visual projects (collages, etc.).  I have no inkling of what I’m going to tackle next, not the slightest clue. That’s exciting. And terrifying. Mostly terrifying. How does a workaholic keep from going absolutely bonkers when he has nothing to engage him? Well, if you’re Sherlock Holmes, you might resort to a seven per cent solution of cocaine. That’s not to my taste but the thought of just sitting around, doodling, allowing my mind to wander holds little appeal either (God knows where it might meander off to). So I think for the time being I’ll be doing what I can to recharge my mental batteries by reading challenging books, watching good movies, feeding my imagination as many words and images as I can. Keeping it occupied, satisfying its insatiable curiosity.

I’m hoping the anxiety I experience as I anticipate the days ahead will fade. It’s important to keep reassuring myself this is not a writing block, this is a fallow period following eighteen months of back-breaking labor on, count ’em, three major projects (including a tribute book I compiled for Sherron in honor of her 50th birthday in June).  No matter what I undertake—a painting, a film, a poem—it will be a creative endeavour, an expression of my spirit. I must have faith that this brief pause is some sort of  object lesson; perhaps it will inspire some humility (wouldn’t that be nice?) or lead to a period of honest, unfiltered reflection. All the masks and pretensions stripped away, a ruthless appraisal of who I am and what I have or haven’t achieved.

If I’m fortunate I’ll come away with a clearer understanding of my purpose, the reason I’m here . ‘Cause Mr. Dylan is right: “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/but we all gotta serve somebody”.

Speaking of whom, it’s high time I had a few words with the Boss, got some new marching orders. A whole different job description might be in order.

Just pray I don’t get the sack…

corridor

(Click on images to enlarge)

Celebrating our 24th anniversary with a poem

 Rock1

The Egyptologist

for Sherron

 

no evidence of tampering
so it’s your fingers
that finally suss out the complicated locks
admitting you to the last chamber

none have progressed as far
only one set of dusty footprints leading in
and it’s you who first catches sight of me
sliding back the heavy lid, my coverlet

 

July 28, 2014

Two new poems

Dilemma

 

Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,

I tear down this crummy, old fence

of ours—then what?

 

Do I replace it with another fence,

clean and white and perfectly straight,

the wood treated with poison

solvents to keep it from weathering?

 

Perhaps a higher fence, six feet

or more, the boards squeezed close

together to dissuade prying eyes;

a solid wall to keep others out.

 

If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana

or what have you, as has been suggested,

will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy

barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?

 

The other option is to leave our backyard

wide open and accessible to the alley…but

I’m not comfortable with that.

 

I agree that our fence is worn out,

dilapidated, something of an eyesore;

I apologize if it embarrasses you.

 

But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy

matter replacing it—and some of your ideas

involve considerable expense. We must not

act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.

 

I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best

I can, until a practical solution presents itself

or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally

collapses, defeated by a horde of years.

 

Fence

 

 * * * * *

Diagnosis

 

Apparently I suffered from a

“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,

the school counselor, told my mother,

which somehow explained the boils,

bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.

 

I remember wondering if this cuteness

was curable and how I got it when I

was such an ugly child, my sisters said

so, and no one else took my side or

stated a contrary view.

 

boy

Mother’s Day & various

flowerpowerI checked the interval since my last post and actually winced, a physical manifestation of my shame.

I must redouble my efforts at keeping this blog up to date. Maintaining contact with my fellow human beings. Not that my life is full of incident—that’s part of the problem, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything more interesting than Sat at desk, stared off into space, played shoegaze music until inspired to scribble a few words

Writing that over and over again, like Jack Torrance in The Shining.

I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat it for the sake of added emphasis: I have no life.

I did manage a trip in to Saskatoon to see a completely whacked film called “A Field in England”, posting about it over at my film blog.

Reading lots. Music constantly thundering away in my office.

And…reflecting…yes, rather a lot of reflecting.

Think I’m still in the process of adjusting to our sons moving out, suffering a bit from “empty nest syndrome”. Occasional bouts of loneliness and melancholia. This house seems awfully bloody empty some days. Feels like I’m transitioning into a new phase in my life, a fifty-something guy whose kids are no longer underfoot, suddenly free of many (not all) of the demands of parenthood. My role, my identity, has undergone a massive change in the past few months and it’s going to take awhile, I think, before I feel comfortable in my skin again.

Will close off with something for the mothers out there—after all, it’s your special day coming up on Sunday.

In his book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou quotes from a letter philosopher Andre Gorz wrote to his wife, Dorine. It’s one of the most beautiful statements on romantic love I’ve yet encountered, a paean to devotion and eternal, unbreakable bonds:

“You’ll soon be eighty-two. You have shrunk six centimeters, you only weigh forty-five kilos yet you are as beautiful, gracious and desirable as ever. We have now lived together for fifty-eight years and I love you more than ever. In the hollow of my chest I can feel again that ravaging emptiness that can only be filled by the warmth of your body against mine.”

Thank you to our wives and mothers, the wise women and brave sisters who give us life and protect us from the worst aspects of ourselves.

We celebrate and salute you.

leaf