City of Storms

City of Storms

 

.  Another morning in Baguio.The clouds scuttle through the valley blotting out fields and houses.  From the street below a vendor csan be heard.  “Puto. Puto.”  Rice cakes for twenty pesos.  A jeepney rumbles past.  The dogs continue their incessant complaints.  Chickens cluck.  Another day in Baguio. Our house sits on the edge of a mountain crest.  Thick green shrubs speckled with yellow Baguio Sunflowers.  I look out to see the valley filling with cloud.  Here the mornings are brighter than the afternoons.  It is then that the clouds gather blotting out the view.

Baguio lies in the mountains .  It is known as the City of Storms where the clounds fill the city.  Little interest had been shown in the area by the Spanish.   The mountains made occupation difficult.  Military outposts were not established until the 1840’s. Apart from a few ranches and the introduction of coffee production little attempt was made to develop thre mountains.  but this changed with the coming of the Americans.  1903 opening of Kennon Road allowed the Americans to open the region for development.  It offered access not only to the interior but also something rare in the Philippines,  cool, clean mountain air.  The Americans found a refuge from the heavy heat of the lowlands.  They built a military camp John Hay and in 1907  Baguio became a city.

Baguio is far from being a tropical paradise.  The streets are overcrowded and dirty.  The traffic is intimidating.  The weather can be extremely gusty and windy.  The valley where I live, once scenic is overrun with houses jammed together and narrow twisting roads. The people though are courteous.  The weather is good, at least ten degrees cooler than on lowlands  and for me this city became more than a city of Storms.  It became to  me a symbol. a goal by which I could regain part of my past life..

When I first came to this valley in 1987 only a solitary house rose amid the fields.  Once known as Saguid the valley had been the home of subsistence farmers far away from the fertile lowlands of the central Luzon plain.  Lyn and I had thoughts of retiring in the Philippines.  Lyn’s family lives near San Carlos down near the Lingayan Gulf but after her years in Canada we were interested in a cooler climate.  Baguio offered that. A temperature at least ten degrees cooler than the lowland, cool enough to require a sweater at night.  Pine scented air that reminded me of Canada. Visioning vacationing amidst scenic panoramas of mountain and valley we bought a lot for just over a hundred thousand pesos and made plans to have a house erected. When I returned in 2011  houses had spread over the hillsides. Diesel fumes suffocated the scent of the pines.  Now it had become a suburb of Baguio crowded with trucks and jeepneys.  The house itself was still in a state of construction. Plumbing was still primitive.  Windows were unsealed, some being impossible to close.  We made plans to return in 2013 to see to the remaining work.  It would take me four years to get back to the valley.

In May of 2012 while we were traveling through Peru I had a stroke. A blood clot at the back of my brain burst.  For almost a month I lay in a bed in Lima.  The stroke left me partially paralyzed on my right side and unable to stand.  My throat muscles were paralyzed which necessitated a feeding tube.  As I lay in the bed barely able to do more than say a few words I dreamed of being home again,   After a month of Peruvian hospitals, and then two and a half months in Saint Mary’s by the Lake in Kingston I did get to go home.  By then my dream had changed.  I wanted to walk, to be able to get up out of the wheelchair and walk out my own front door.Such a thought seemed at best remote.  Not only had the stroke taken away my ability to walk by paralyzing my right leg.  It had also left me with severe vertigo.  Any sudden movement would cause me to lose all sense of balance.  Such a condition had taken away the ability to walk.

During the months after being discharged  from Saint Mary’s as I struggled to walk again I had begun to accept that there was so much in my life that I would never do again..I had spent much of my life teaching English both in Canada and overseas.  I had become used to traveling and working overseas.  Now I could only lie in bed aware that any sudden movement would precipitate another attack of vertigo.  As the swelling at the back of brain healed the vertigo eased.

For three years the limits of my world grew again. In the first months after Saint Mary”s the vertigo made it difficult for me to travel by car.  Any sudden change in speed or turn could trigger it.  The idea of any form of travel seemed absurd.  Then slowly, as I healed the vertigo receded. I was able to travel across the city, then to Ottawa, then to Florida.  Now, four years after the stroke I find myself in the Philippines again.

I could have stayed in Kingston and waited out the winter, every day knowing that one slip could result in a broken limb or I could go to where there is no winter, to a house half a world away.  I chose the Philippines..

Any life worth living has an element of risk.  By risk I do not mean that you have to jump out of an airplane or dive to the bottom of the sea.  You do have to decide if you want to take steps towards following your dream knowing that it could mean hardship and failure,  There is a scene in Death Of A Salesman when Willy Loman mentions that he once had a chance to go to Alaska.  He never did and has regretted it ever since. That scene has haunted me.Willy is a man who decided not to follow his dream. Every one’s life is marked by dreams, some simple, some difficult. A life hiding from dreams is a life not worth living. I have had two dreams since I was young, to write and to travel.  To date, I have written four novels, several short stories and a cluster of essays.  None of these have been published but I continue to write.  Why write what no one will read? Maybe someone will, but more important I write because I have to. If I do not I feel incomplete.  .

Another dream  that I have held since I was young was to travel. It has led me across Africa, Asia and Europe.  It led me to the woman who became my wife.  Now it has led me here. If I do not survive this trip, so be it.  No regrets. So I sit in a house I thought  I would never get back too and I write this essay.  In March I will return to Canada.  Whether I return to Baguio will depend on my health. At this stage in my life only the love between myself my wife and son is certain..  Hopefully they will do so again.n.  Everything else could change.  The winds of life brought me to the City of Storms. Hopefully they will do it again.

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The Baobab

Sipping my chocolate I sit in a doughnut shop and watch the cars stream by. The dark sky presses down upon a gray land. I look into that drab mass. My drink cools, forgotten. I see another sky, an arc of shimmering blue with a sun so bright my eyes begin to water. I think of a plain stretching away to the deserts of the north and of a girl sitting under a baobab tree.
September of 1983 Lyn and I were approaching the end of our third year in Nigeria. We were teaching at a girls’ school at the northern edge of Nigeria, only a few kilometres south of the Niger. The town we had been posted to, Mallam Maduri, was a tiny place, a stop on the railroad between Kano and Maiduguri. It served as a market centre for the local farmers and for traders coming down from the Niger. If you went to the end of nowhere, Mallam Maduri was one hundred kilometres beyond that. Even so, we liked it. The people were friendly. Compared to the chaos of Kano and Lagos, life was peaceful, one day drifting into another.
The harmattan, the time of cold nights and perpetual dust being blown south from the encroaching desert had passed. Now the heat mounted with every passing day. Once classes ended at two o’clock we could little more than crumple of top of our bed and sleep until the heat began to ebb.
About four we would rise, dress and begin the two-kilometre walk from the school to the town. There we would check our mail and visit the market, the merchandise spread out on straw to keep it out of the dust. Nodding at the Fulani herdsmen and Hausa farmers and traders, we would buy our meat for the next day, brushing away the flies covering the meat. Behind us women in colourful wraps, babies on their back, jostled with one another to fill cups with rice from an open bag on which had been stencilled USAID. A merchant offered the rice at fifty kobos a cup. Tuareg tribesmen from Niger, wearing deep purple robes, ogled the baturis. It would give them something to discuss on the long camel ride back home.
Before going back to the school we would relax with cold bottles of coke and roast bulangu (lamb) or suya (beef). We would sit and gossip with some of the townspeople that we knew or one or two of the other teachers from the school, a pleasant way to end the day.
As we did every day we passed out of the broken gate of the school . The one-eyed maigardi (watchman) waved aty us, sending us a cheery sannu (hello). Exchanging yaya da aiki Aiki da Godiya (how is work, how is life) , we stepped onto the road. Its black tarred surface rose above the plain, running straight towards the town. Ahead of us we could see the grey fingers of a baobab tree that marked the halfway point between the town and the school.
More than any other plant the Baobab suits Afrtica. Ugly and ungainly, it survives where few other trees can. Often called the upside down tree its branches, bare most of the year, resemble roots. The trunk has the look of an elephant’s leg. The bark, a smooth, dull gray has a texture as pliable as rubber.
Beneath the tree sat a girl about fourteen years old. She was wrapped in dust-stained cotton, once bright red, now faded. On her back was tied a sleeping baby. She sat in the shade of the tree. In front of her was a bowl of hollowed wood inside of wehich was a solitary five kobo coin. I do not know where she was going, where she had come from or how long she had been under the tree. I can only assume that she had interrupted her journey to rest during the heat of the afternoon.
I believe that she was Fulani, being of a slim build with high cheekbones. Most Fulani girls carry themselves well, as if aware of belonging to a clan that had ruled over the Hausa for two centuries. She looked up as we approached. Eyes, telling of a life that had become too much for her, stared up at us. As is traditional among women seeking a request, she dropped to her knees. Lowering her eyes she asked, “ Please, Mallam, Mallama, buy my baby.”
I glanced back at Lyn. She looked at the girl for a moment and then at me. We said nothing but our thoughts were the same.
“I’m sorry, mallama,” I told the girl.
I dropped a fifty kobo coin into her bowl. We went on our way. I glanced back. She was still sitting under the tree, her back resting against its smooth trunk. The baby was beginning to cry. When we returned, an hour later, she was gone.
We knew why she had made the offer. Her husband was either dead or had left her, or unmarried, she had disgraced her family. Without money or education, there were only two roads open to her, begging, or prostitution. If she were lucky, and could raise a little money, she might open a stall in the market, selling groundnuts. That was the best that she could hope for her and her baby.
I could have tried to explain, at least to the limited extent that her knowledge of English would allow the reasons why we could not buy the child. We were only teachers earning a small salary. We had no property, no money in Canada. The Canadian government would not have approved. One did not buy children. We had done the right thing, the sensible thing. If she had known that, then she would not have asked.
What did she know? Did she know what Canadian law would have to say? Did she know our economic position? All that she knew was that we were Baturi coming from a land blessed with infinite wealth. We were Baturi. Therefore, we were rich. Why could we not afford one small baby. The baby would live well. Without the baby she would be free to go back home. It must have seemed a sensible solution to her. Why could we not have seen it? Strange are the ways of the Baturi.
We left Nigeria two months later. We would return to Africa again, twice but not to Nigeria. What became of the girl, I do not know. If she is still alive she would be an old women. People age fast in the north. The child would be grown with children of its own. I wonder if its mother told it about the Baturi who turned it away? Does it dream of how different its life would have been in the land of the Baturi. I will never know. Would it have been so terrible to have said yes?
My drink is finished and my desire to loiter in the warmth of the shop is overtaken by my need to be somewhere else. I step back out onto the street. Bracing myself against the cold, I look up at the sky. I see the darkness and long for the blue skies of Africa. Again I wish for the brown fields and for the baobab trees standing against a molten sun

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Isms

Isms

                “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”  Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Grand Inquisitor

                One of my earliest memories in school was being informed by a nun that non-Catholics could never hope to go to heaven.  I remember asking if the person led a good life would they be accepted.  The answer was clear and unarguable.  No.  Heaven was reserved for good Catholics.  Looking back I would say that this was my introduction to an ism.  I have no reason to believe that the nun held any personal animosity towards non-Catholics.  They were simply not of her belief and were therefore barred from Heaven.  It was not a question of who they were but what they were.

I remember from my early student days  the history books that I read, some Canadian, some American and some British.  Every time I read one be it Canadian or American or English I felt my viewpoint shifting adapting itself to the writer of the book.  As I grew older I felt that shifting every time I read.   Which viewpoint was correct?  It all depended upon which one you chose to believe.

Mankind is a species whose existence is based upon belief.  What it believes in varies but never the need to believe.  This need has existed since the first inklings of human consciousness and will probably exist until its end.  Belief stems from our senses and from our thoughts.  Both are shaped by our experiences and knowledge and beliefs from the generations before us. Since the beginnings of its self-consciousness mankind has expressed belief in spirits and Gods.  The need to believe is probably older than Homo sapiens.  It probably arose with Homo Hails.  Two events would seem to have triggered it, greater brain size and the taming of fire.  Anyone who has sat around a campfire can feel what it must have been like for early man sharing in the warmth of the newly tamed flames.  Warmth, light, security, the taste of roasted food was all part of what fire offered to our distant ancestors.  It also offered something else, imagination.  The dancing flames created pictures as they still do today.  As they stared into the flames their minds began to wander.  Thoughts formed leading to beliefs.

The oldest isms were probably animism and  zootheism.  Animism was the granting of divine attributes to inanimate objects, the wind, the rain, plants etc.  Zootheism involved giving of divine attributes to animals.  Man drew his beliefs from what he knew.  The animals he hunted, the plants he gathered the land upon which he lived; these were what he was familiar with.

According the Google there are two hundred and thirty four isms each one representing a particular belief, Absolutism to Zootheism.  This number is swollen if one adds the prefixes  neo and ultra  in front of the isms. A distinctive practice, system or philosophy typically a political ideology or political movement, isms have haunted human thinking since the beginnings of society.  A rock is not an ism.  It does not need to be believed in to exist.  In the same way, there is no Societism or Religionism or Governmentism..Societies exist.  Governments exist.  Religions exists.  It is the forms they take that imply isms, not their existence.   The problem with isms is that once the prefect ism is attached it ceases to be a mere thing.  It becomes a belief.  Any belief  is surrounded by its group of followers who holds it to be unquestionable.

Isms reflect the societies in which they evolved.   So I found in the Iliad.  The brutal egotism of the heroes of the Iliad, today found in criminal gangs and in prisons  is reflected in their polytheism.  I found it to be difficult reading although the storyline itself was easy enough.  The difficulty lay in understanding the characters. After nine years of fruitless fighting the Greek army splits.  Agamemnon insults Achilles who withdraws into his tent refusing any further aid to his fellow Greeks.  It seemed to me monumental stupidity on the part of Agamemnon and selfishness of Achilles.

The fall of the house of Atreus is one of the best known legends of Classical.  The earliest known dynasty in Europe, the House of Atreus was represented by the two brothers Agamemnon of Mycenae and Meneleus of Sparta.  {n the Iliad two beliefs dominate the world of the Iliad, Polytheism and Militarism.  The heroes are with the exception of Hector and Priam are cruel and egotistic.  It is hard to believe but it never enters the mind of any of the Greeks to surround Troy and cut off its supplies.  The only modern societies resembling that of the Iliad might be found in prisons or in gangs.  The war between Troy and Mycenean Greece was a disaster for both sides.  It precipitated the destruction of Walusa, its sacking and burning.  It also weakened Mycenaean Greece. Within a generation it collapsed from invasion of Doric tribes.

The story struck me then as being one of gross incompetence on the part of the Greeks. However to Homer the saga merely reflected that man’s fate rested with the gods. A love of  glory, pride and courage mattered more than the intricacies of siege warfare.  This explained why battles would stop to allow heroes to duel with one another.  Glory, not victory was the great object.

                The problem with a lot of reasoning is that in building an argument the speaker will begin from a particular point of view or belief.  Everything that the person argues stems from that belief.  As long as the belief is accepted, the argument possesses credibility.  If the belief fails so does the argument.

Socrates, the stonecutter, in teaching us how to think opened the road to freedom.  Plato, the aristocrat immortalized Socrates. In teaching us how to reach a perfect society he showed us the road leading to the Gulag. Plato and other philosophers after him sought to apply universal principles to perfect society.  Yet none of them ever truly understood what the universe was.  Plato loved and admired Socrates but in the shaping of his ideas Plato remained an Athenian aristocrat of the fifth century B.C.E.

We cling to a small planet surrounding a mediocre sun.  Our solar system is one of millions that makes up our galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of millions that makes up our universe.  It is possible that our universe is in turn only one of many.   Any beliefs that we have are rooted to  an insignifigent rock we call the Earth.  At best our beliefs relate to our species.  We have no reason to believe that they have any application anywhere else.

Our own beliefs are shaped  by our historical experiences, our present reality and our hopes for the future.  Like a young person preparing to leave home for college we are on the edge of heading out to the moon and to Mars.  In doing so we must leave our childhood behind.

The tribal god of Abraham evolved over the centuries into a universal god for all humankind.  Now it faces a paradox.  As our view of the universe expands what happens to our view of God.  If we live as cosmologists suggest in one of many universes does God expand across all the universe or is there one God for each universe?

In the 3end does it matter?  Humankind stands like a child dipping a toe into the vastness of the cosmos. Many, not all,  but many of  our beliefs have helped us to reach this point in our life. It has been a long journey but a much longer one awaits us.  Along the way we have discarded many out dated concepts.  We will probably drop more but one thing we 0will keep.    We will hold on to our need to believe, in something greater than ourselves and in one another.  That is what has helped to make us human.

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Old Meg

 

They killed Tom last night. So my daughter said.

They come into the cathedral, swords, hauberks and all and hacked him down.

People say he was a saint.

Maybe.

Priests tell us to be a saint you must first be a man or woman.

Even Jesus had to be a man before becoming the saviour.

He had to shit and piss, feel hunger’s gnaw. Love’s sweet pain.

Tom knew these. No saint he when he had been young.

Beef-fed ladies and their knights fur trimmed against the cold.

Amongst them rode Tom, Tom of Cheapside, the cloth merchant’s son.

Riding at the side of the young King, the Empress Matilda’s son, tall and Yellow-haired,

Tom, Dark and shorter,

The Tom I had known in the greening of our world.

Barely more than children we lay beside the river.

He gave me ribbons for my hair.

Green ribbons,  as  green as the grass upon which we lay,

And murmured I was fair.

But he went to be a clerk

And I married a Southwark blacksmith, Edwin

A good match my father said.

And so it was.

Love, Children, a home.

Yet.

Her life had been so short.

A flower that had blossomed and then

Had shrivelled in the winter.

If life were fragile, how more with a memory.

Fragments of fragments.

Pieces of a broken pot

Some pieces are missing.

You can never put back together again so why keep the fragments?

They are just …too pretty to throw away.

I lie against my goose down pillow and I listen to the family talk.

Humans jibber.

Rats skitter.

Does any of it matter?

What am I anyway? Toothless. Foolish. Too old to do anything except to wait for death.

Old Meg.

Father John tells me that soon I will be with Edwin again, with Ma and Da, all the ones

that I have lost.

Young and strong,

Not what I am now.

It pleases, yet

Part of me longs to lie beside the river with Tom

Green ribbons in my hair.

 

 

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Candles at Sea

Candles at Sea

(to my father)

In Japan they place candles

In little paper boats

And push them down the river

To the sea;

Tiny cargoes of light,

They mark the memory

Of those who have gone before.

Here we light candles in front of

Stained glass windows

Candles locked into place by glass and metal.

Somehpw the idea of a candle

Bobbing on the water

Being carried by the whim

Of river and sea

Best fits the memory of a man

Who was a sailor at heart.

So here’s a candle for you dad.

We stand by the shore and watch it drift away,

Tiny, fragile

It heads off into the currents of time

Lighting the memories in our hearts.

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The River

 

Deep in darkness beneath the city,

Water trickles from a rock

Squeezed by banks of stone and steel

The river flows beneath us,

No star or sun to light its way.

Where rivulets had once swelled its course now came offerings

From sinks and sewers

Where white tailed deer had once nibbled grass

Scurry the claws of rats

Where sun kissed children once played in its sun dappled waters

Black stone walls rise

Only at the end does it surge through an iron grill

Into the gray light

Mingling with the dirty waters of the harbour

The river Leaps into the light only to be lost in the depth of the sea.

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Gilgamesh

 

Gilgamesh

At times when the ties holding societies together become frayed and are in danger of breaking, it is not a bad thing to consider what a society is and where it came from.  The earliest known complete work of literature is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Much of it is concerned with the struggle between a powerful individual and the needs of a community.

King of strong walled Uruk, son of a goddess, the first of a series of semi-divine heroes that will extend through literature to the New Testament, Gilgamesh is the hero of the oldest surviving work of literature.  The opening limes of the epic depict a man revelling in his physical strength. An autocrat he terrorizes his people who plead to the gods for help.  Any civilization is a communal affair, Individuals joining together for the common good.  Gilgamesh for all his physical prowess, or because of it,   seeks only his pleasure.  He ravishes young women and seizes young men for their labour.   Gilgamesh possesses the strength of a god but lacks wisdom.  The story is concerned with his gradual realization of man’s true destiny.

The people of Uruk pray to the gods for aid. The gods respond to the prayers of the people by sending to Gilgamesh the wild man Enkiddu.  Not to punish Gilgamesh but to make him realize the limits of his strength. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and Enkidu, the man of the wild, have much in common.  They both revel in their physical strength.  Instead of chastening Gilgamesh Enkidu joins him in defying the Gods.

The gods reply by condemning Enkidu to die of a fever.

Utanapishtim:   Man is snapped off like a reed in a canebrake.

For all his power Gilgamesh cannot save Enkidu. With the death of Enkidu Gilgamesh understands that at the end of life there is sorrow.

You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me.”

“Seven days and seven nights he wept for Enkidu.”

  “Bitterly Gilgamesh wept for his friend Enkidu.”

Distraught with grief and terrified that Death will also come for him Gilgamesh wanders in search of Utnapistim, in the land of Dilmun, survivor of the deluge the only man granted immortality by the Gods.  From him Gilgamesh hopes to find immortality.

Utnapishtim disillusions him There is no permanence. Man can not live forever.  Gilgamesh is wasting his time and is failing in his duty to his city.

“As for you Gilgamesh, who will assemble the Gods for your sake so that you may find the life for which you are searching?”

However he offers Gilgamesh a test. He must not sleep for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh fails and now must return to Uruk.  As a consolation Utnapishtim tells him of a plant that will restore vigour to old men.  Gilgamesh secures it from the bottom of the sea and elated with the gift sails back.  However  before reaching Uruk Gilgamesh stops to have a bath. While he is bathing a serpent swallows the  flower.  At this point one wonders why the tale is not called Gilgamesh the fool.

Gilgamesh has failed.  He has failed as a king in antagonizing his people. He has angered the gods and could not protect his friend Enkidu from their anger. He fails to find immortality or in even safeguarding its substitute.  If the story had ended there it would have been little better than a farce.  An ep[ic however is not concerned with just the trials of it’s hero/heroine.  It isconcerning with the hero gaining greater understanding from, those trials. Gilgamesh leaves Uruk a semi-divine. He returns as a man.

Man’s life is compared to that of a mayfly, brief, fated to perish into oblivion. .  Only the Gods can hold immortality. But Gilgamesh has attained something. As he surveys his city he understands that  it is in the communal life of the city that man attains immortality.  In the city man learns to be human, The individual without the city is a savage unable to live with other men as a civilized being.

He who saw the deep, a man in search of immortality.

Instead he finds wisdom.

His journey to Dilmun has failed to bring him the secret of eternal life but as he reaches Uruk Gilgamesh now understands that immortality was never his destiny.  His destiny was to be king of Uruk and to rule it justly.  Yes, he has failed in his quest, but all men fail. Every human being has limitations.  What Gilgamesh has realized is that, great as he is,  he is a man like other men.  For that is what an epic is. The hero endures trials and from them gains a new understanding of themselves and of others.  Whether he or she gains anything else is beside the point.

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