The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity sits above the Bow River and the town of Banff. Started in the 1930s as a project to give people in the arts some paid work, it is now a lively institution that houses retreats, workshops, concerts, a library, theatres and art galleries. I am here for the Summer Writers Retreat. With temperatures hovering around 14 degrees C it doesn’t feel very summery. While I thought my stay here would be rather monastic, I meet daily with some of the 18 other writers here, either at the cafeteria meals or at workshops. But mostly we work, emerging from our rooms looking slightly dazed.
One arrives and registers at the Professional Development Centre.
Professional Development Centre
Our rooms are in Lloyd Hall:
The library and the bar are in this lovely building:
What do you do at the retreat? This question is very similar to What do you do all day? Writers write, which does not make for interesting conversation. What we do at the retreat: Write. And edit and revise and research and write some more. Attend group sessions with the mentors in the afternoon, if one wishes. Some of the craft topics we’ve discussed: what is the difference between a story collection, a linked collection and a novel? How do you create or maintain tension in your fiction? What is a novella? Does an image tell a story? Are agents worth their fee? Persevere. Write some more. And if that doesn’t work, go for a walk to think while looking at the beautiful scenery — just watch out for bears.
The summer in East Jerusalem is hot and dry. Windows left open, surfaces in the apartment are coated in dust. Yet as I slowly go about daily activities, I see these little beauties blooming. For me they are like bits of joy caught in one’s peripheral vision. And just as I am illiterate in this country of Hebrew and Arabic, I do not know the names of these flowers — except the bougainvillea and poppies. Identifying comments welcome.
This Is Not an Ulpan, based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, offers Hebrew and Arabic lessons of a different sort than I’ve experienced. The classroom lessons are thematic and sometimes take place as excursions — you go to a cafe to speak the language of cafes. They are committed to engaging with our surroundings. For example, at the beginner level, Eat Ivrit combines cooking and food culture with learning Hebrew. Advanced Hebrew learners can take Human Rights in a Conflicted Society. I approve, and subscribe to their newsletter in the ever optimistic hope that a course will fit my level and schedule. The newsletters are lessons in themselves, such as this one on the situation in Gaza, which offers first a brief explanation of the situation in Gaza now, and second, and this is great, pertinent vocabulary.
With their permission, here is an excerpt from the May 2, 2018 newsletter from This Is Not an Ulpan:
What’s Going On in Gaza?
The March of Return began on March 30th and by the end of the first day, 15 Gazans had been killed and 1,416 wounded. Since March 30th, over 40 Gazans have been killed via sniper fire from Israeli Defense Forces. Not a single Israeli has wounded nor has a single rocket been fired from Gaza.
Left-wing protests have been raising the question of whether or not it is moral to shoot at Gazan protesters: The March of Return is not an act of war, the protesters are not militants nor have they killed or injured a single Israeli soldier, so why does it appear that the IDF is shooting to kill?
Some Background Info
Currently the Gaza Strip is in a state of despair. There is only enough electricity to last a few hours, limited food and clean water supplies, many children without living parents. Due to the Israeli fear that Hamas will continue to smuggle in rockets and weapons, there is blockade on trade and economic opportunities, resulting in an unemployment rate of 63%. In the past, Hamas has misappropriated funding from the UN and other organisations to build tunnels into Israel and develop is military capabilities, giving legitimacy to Israeli fears. The March of Return marks one of the first civilian-led protests from Palestinian-Gazans meant to be nonviolent. It is of popular opinion that as Israel continues to use force against Palestinian protests, tensions will rise and lead the IDF and Hamas into another violent conflict.
Words To Know
Tsalaf – Sniper – צלף
The majority of Gazans have been killed by sniper fire from the IDF located a distance from the fence. Those killed by sniper fire include two reporters who were wearing press jackets, several minors and a man on crutches.
גדר – Gader – Fence
The wall separating Israel and Gaza. The IDF claims that people are being shot because they are a threat to the stability of the fence or are attempting to jump the fence and infiltrate. Tactics employed by Gazans choosing to engage with the IDF and fence include tire burning, Molotov cocktails and most recently a kites with a fire bombs flown over the wall.
Mafgin – Demonstrator – מפגין
All Gazans participating in the March of Return think of themselves as demonstrators against the terrible and inhumane conditions of Gaza as well as the desire to return to their previous homes. 70% of Gazans identify as refugees from the 1948 war, meaning either they or their grandparents were removed from their homes.
מחבל – Mehabel – Terrorist
The Israeli media has been quick to label the Gazans who have been killed by the IDF terrorists, often linking them directly with Hamas.
פרספקטיבה – Perspektiva – Perspective
There are multiple perspectives on The March of Return. In a simplification, Gazans see the protest as a fundamental right to return and humanitarian health issue. Many Israelis see this as a serious security issue and will do everything everything in their power to protect the State of Israel and themselves.
An easy one. I’m giving you ten random titles chosen from various random generators about ye olde internet — pick one, let that be the title of your new story. Any genre will do, list at the bottom of the post. Length: ~1000 words Due by: Friday, March 2nd, 2018 Post at your online space, link…
Ticho House gets a full page in the beginner’s Hebrew textbook, a text dense with such vocabulary as paintings, books, gardens, and mountains. The first time I “read” the text, I understood that Mark Twain and Claude Monet had both lived in this amazing 19th century house, and that it was at one point owned by a man called Avraham Ticho and his daughter Anna. When I am trying to understand something in another language, I bring to the text the knowledge that I have, much as I imagine archeologists do when faced with a handprint on an ancient clay wall. In my case, Canadian heritage houses are occupied by writers — think of Pierre Berton House and Al Purdy House. So why not Mark Twain shacking up with Claude Monet? Six months later, in a rereading of the text, I learned that a comparison was being made — other houses owned by famous people (Twain, Monet) are museums, too, just like Ticho House. But how did I draw from “Dr and Anna Ticho” that this was his daughter rather than his wife? No idea.
Ticho House is now a museum and cultural centre because artist Anna Ticho (1894-1980) bequeathed it to the state, or the Israel Museum, on her death. In addition to the exhibition on the Ticho collections, it holds temporary exhibitions.
Ophthamologist Avraham Ticho (1883-1960) bought the house in 1924, opening his clinic on the ground floor. Dr Ticho worked as an eye specialist before and after the First World War (during which he served in the Austrian army), curing patients both rich and poor. In 1913, through schools, he focused on preventing trachoma.
Anna studied art in Vienna before coming to Jerusalem in 1912. Only after WWI, however, did she start drawing and painting her surroundings.
Dr Ticho collected Hanukkah lamps, the oldest of which dates from the 1400s. According to the text in the museum in Ticho House, the lamps came from all over, from Europe to Russia and Afghanistan. It goes on to say that he hung the lamps on the walls around his desk; today a few lamps from the collection are on display behind glass. Some are in the Israel museum. A Hebrew teacher said that some of the collection was stolen in the 1990s and never recovered — but how do I know I understood her correctly? The museum exhibition makes no mention of any theft or loss of lamps.
Ticho House no longer looks like an early 20th Century home. It was renovated; a slideshow reveals how the rooms were gutted. The renovation exposed the ceiling upstairs, in what is now a restaurant: Anna’s Italian Cafe. A sunny busy room. And it is thanks to this restaurant that a friend met me and led me to Ticho House, a friend who not only has a better sense of direction than I do but who didn’t seem to mind that I licked my fingers while exclaiming that the food was delicious. Which it was.
For the month of July, I hit my head against the hard wall of the Hebrew alphabet and language, in an intensive course at the Polis Institute. This is the first time that I’ve learned an alphabet to learn a language, but not the first time I tried to learn Hebrew. I should say two alphabets, since handwritten letters are shaped differently from printed ones.
Shock one: it is harder to learn a language that uses an alphabet different from the Roman or Latin alphabet because suddenly you are illiterate.
My first attempts at reading in Hebrew went something like this: the fish-hook is a “t”, the crown is also a “t”, the snout is a “b”, the thing that looks like a chair is “l” and the snail-shell is “p” or “f.” By the end of July, I could silently spell out each word (grade one level?). Now there are at least three words that I recognize on sight: what, wine and chocolate.
Schools for learning Hebrew are called Ulpan; they are designed to quickly immerse new arrivals in the language and culture of Israel. Until its 19th century revival, Hebrew was restricted to a sacred use, and then it was modernized for use by Israelis in the mid-20th century.
Shock two: religion comes to class.
Some of the students in my class are literate in the Hebrew alphabet because they have learned biblical Hebrew. Many of the students are Christians, here to learn the language of the Old Testament. In class, the language is inseparable from religion: for the days of the week, we learn about the Sabbath, and discuss what we do on this day. We sing a Sabbath song. Reading a text about a museum, we learn the difference between Menorahs and Chanukahs. I begin a list in my notebook titled Religious Vocabulary, with holy days and relevant nouns.
In one month and ten chapters, we learn to count in feminine and masculine, to tell the time, to buy dates and figs. We learn to ask where the wine is from, to respond to apartment rental ads, to discuss whether we’d want to live on a kibbutz and where we’d like to go in Israel. At no time in the course do we learn about mandatory military service for Israelis.
Hebrew is taught without explanation in any other language, through the use of pictures, songs, and mime. The teacher holds up a black and white line drawing, cartoon style, of a group of people of all ages and sizes looking very happy, waving, some open mouthed, some smiling. Everyone else has nodded at this illustration of the word we are learning. To save time, for once the teacher allows me to guess. I hazard: choir? Band? No, no. Into my ear comes the whisper: family.
Shock three: culture shock. I’d heard about families large enough to make their own sports team, but because I was stuck in my Canadian perspective of family = 2.5 (unhappy) persons, I could not see what I was looking at.
There were other situations that I misunderstood. For example, I thought that this situation: (teacher picks up cell phone, blahblahblahSMS, teacher clicks on it, SMSblahblahblahblah) meant there was a word for SMS messages; the word the teacher was demonstrating turned out to be get.
Shock four: the decline in my language acquisition faculties. The youthful in the class hear a word once, maybe twice, and remember it. I hear it and five minutes later ask, Mah zé (what that?). Or, reading right to left, and bearing in mind that vowels are not marked and the curvy last letter is silent — the hut with chimney and crooked walking stick: מה זה. There should be a special word for the humiliation of a bookish person becoming illiterate and an articulate person becoming inarticulate. As for being unable to memorize long lists of words daily, there is already a word for that: aging.
Then there is the question of relevance. Often the teacher asks each student the same question in turn. Such as: Do you go to the disco on Friday night? What do you want to be? I answer that I don’t dance, and I want to be who I am. What is your favourite song to sing? “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is the only song that comes to mind – not exactly appropriate given the religious component above. I say I don’t sing.
After 20 hours of classes (one week), and a persistent headache (is there a physiological reason to develop headache while learning a new language?), I wondered why I was doing this. In Kenya I studied Swahili, in Austria German. In both cases my belief that learning the language would give me insight into the culture was proven true. This time, the difficulty of my task made me doubt the necessity of memorizing long lists of vocabulary
For this month of humiliation and headache, there was a reward. It came not from the teacher but through the hours of homework. The word for salt is melach: מלח. This refers to both table salt and to bodies-of-water salt — the Dead Sea is actually called Sea the Salt: ימ המלח. In one of the homework exercises we are asked to choose from two words (sugar, salt) to fill in two blanks in a sentence that reads something like: In good family life, blank is better than blank. My mind strayed to the bins of candy in the markets here. Sugar is better than salt?
The week that I filled in these blanks, three Palestinians were shot during demonstrations over the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the mosque complex in the old city, where two Israeli soldiers were killed the week before. During the escalating tensions in Jerusalem, I read a homework text that forced me to look up a word that looks like salt-what, or melach-mah: מלחמה. It means: war. Sugar is indeed better than salt.
Shokolad. Chocolate. שוקולד My favourite is bittersweet.
When I was clearing off my father’s desk after his death this summer, I found a round cardboard disk with the words “to it” printed on it. I recognized immediately this gift from his second wife some 30 years ago, a joke gift. At his puzzled look on opening it, she said, “Now you’ve got a round to it, you can do all those things you’ve been putting off.” She was playing with his usual reply of “I’ll get around to it.” He was not amused. They divorced about five years later.
I didn’t take the disk away with me, but I feel I’ve inherited my father’s tendency to procrastinate. Since his death in June and since our move to Jerusalem in August, I have neglected family, friends, my work, social media, and Canadian Writers Abroad.
Procrastination is easy when you move to a new country. Unless you are efficient and organized, which I was not this time, no one knows your telephone number, and anyhow who can figure out how to retrieve messages, and sometimes the internet doesn’t work, and who can be bothered? And when you walk out your door, no one knows you. No one is going to ask how your work is going. By December I knew I’d let things slide long enough and resolved to do better in the new year.
Around Christmas, I got red eyes. The pain in one eye was so intense that it felt like a biblical punishment. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t look at a computer screen. At St John’s Eye Hospital, a mere block away, they told me I had a virus. That I would be better soon. But I didn’t get better, I got worse.
Moving abroad and setting up house in a new country isn’t always easy. But you get on with things, do what you have to do, and when you stumble, you say to yourself that things will get better. Sometimes, though, they get worse. The new year came and went and I couldn’t read. Everything was blurry. I recoiled from sunlight like a vampire.
And then — bless “and then,” the redeeming turn of the story. I went to another eye doctor, who found the hard seedy source of the problem stuck to my eyelid, which in turn caused an abrasion that delayed victory over the virus. I still can’t read, and am touch-typing this while squinting. But now I am assured that my eye will recover, and this makes everything bearable. Even the necessity of apologizing for my months of procrastination is bearable. I am looking forward.
My question to you is: if you couldn’t read for a few weeks, what book would you select for your first read of 2017?
Sometimes when I look at the view from the various hilltops where I live, I feel disbelief. (Disbelief in the most religious city in the world!) How can this be the view when only weeks ago it was lush gardens, clean parks, red buses, brollies and rain? The most sunny day in London could not match this brightness –the light in this photo is at the end of the day, around 5:00 PM.
Since coming to Jerusalem I’ve thought often of Playmobil dolls, the small plastic dolls that come in themed boxes. The farm-girl doll with her sheep and sheaf of wheat. The racer with his car and wrench. The knight with his horse and armour and spear. Because we lived in a country with castles when our daughter was Playmobil aged, we bought many knights. I think of them now, here, because of the crusades. Did she have crusader knights? Whether we thought they were good guys or bad guys didn’t matter, because she discovered that you could pull off not only their armour and helmets but also their hair. The brown-haired knight would, pop, become the blonde knight. All dolls swapped roles.
That’s how I feel when I look at the view here. Like someone picked me up out of my London theme and dropped me into ancient religious-land theme, and popped the top of my head off en route. Pictured on my box would be the wall (both the wailing one and the one that makes you weep) and the Dome of the Rock and Orthodox Jews and friendly Arab shopkeepers and me holding a pomegranate.
And you thought I was going to write about a car, the expat version of the popemobile.
How could I resist an exhibition called “In the Valley of David and Goliath”? The exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem displays artifacts excavated from 2007 to 2013 at a 3,000 year-old site today known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, in the Elah Valley. But maybe, just maybe, it was the city of Sha’arayim, mentioned apparently in the bible story of David and Goliath. Why would it be that city, quite apart from its location between the Philistines and the Judeans (near the battlefield where David slew Goliath and thereby created the infinite Hollywood trope of clever little guy against big bad guy)? Because, the museum display posits, Sha’arayim means two gates in Hebrew, and the archeologists found two gates in the walled city they were excavating, and not many sites from that era have two gates, for security reasons obviously. Therefore…. Does this sound like a logic exercise in a philosophy class?
Despite my discomfort with finding biblical quotations as bonus information to the exhibits, I was fascinated. It is pretty cool that archeologists can gather up a bunch of chewed olive pits and use carbon dating to place the site in time. From the Bible Lands website: “Carbon14 dating, on charred olive pits excavated from the foundation layers of the site have determined that this city existed between the late 11th century BCE and early 10th century BCE, the beginning of the Kingdom of Israel.”
The Kingdom of Israel is also referred to as the Kingdom of David. I mention these kingdoms because I felt like someone was trying too hard to convince me. For example, a hand print on a clay wall could mean A or B, depending on what interpretation you bring to it and its context. This exhibition is presenting the artifacts as support for another city belonging to the Kingdom of David (and therefore Israel), although, to give the museum credit, the interpretation is presented as questions: Could this be etc.?
Item: a piece of pottery with Hebrew writing on it.
Item: three small shrines or houses for idols, one of which apparently resembles the biblical description of King Solomon’s temple and palace but looks like a doll-house to me.
Item: or the lack thereof. Bones were found in the food areas, but no pork bones, and the Philistines ate pork so they couldn’t have been living here.
Item: clay pots with thumb prints on the handles. Taxation? Valuation? These along with the walls of the town suggest an organized state.
Proof that this was the site of a city built at the time of King David or thereabouts? Maybe. Even the book about it by archeologists Yosef Garfinkel, Igor Kreimerman and Peter Zilberg leaves it open to question: Debating Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Fortified City in Judah from the Time of King David (Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
But tell me why do I hear Danny Kaye singing “Look at the king the king the king” as I write this?
Yes, there’s dust, but hey, the dust is old. When I try to read about exactly how old this place is, it’s as if I ate an ice cream bar too fast: brain freeze. During our five years in England we explored its history backwards, starting with Victorian, then heading out to medieval cathedral towns, and on our last trip, searching for signs of the Romans at Hadrian’s wall. People don’t come to Jerusalem for any of that comparatively modern history. Here history is religious — it’s where BC and AD began.
What do I mean by old dust, anyhow? Do I want geological information? Or human habitation? My Baedeker’s Israel tells me that people have been living in the Jerusalem area since the Early Stone Age. And that people were moving around and conquering Israel well before the Egyptians temporarily took charge. What makes me double check that I am indeed reading the chapter called “History,” pages of which are tabbed with “Facts” is the discussion of biblical figures. Such as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt (which took 40 years and suggests he had a worse sense of direction than I do): “…ended their migration on Mount Nebo in present-day Jordan, where Moses died and his successor Johsua organized the land seizure. Neither the story recounted in Exodus, nor the character of Moses, can be taken literally from a historical perspective. Nevertheless they are a valuable source that describes different migration groups at that time…” p. 54.
I like that bit about “organized the land seizure” even if it can’t be taken literally.
It just gets better. Remember David and Goliath? That stone slinging incident was part of a larger engagement against the Philistines, and David became king, and captured Jerusalem and made it his capital around 998 BC. There is more about David in the chapter “Famous People,” where he has an entry (p. 97). Who did he capture Jerusalem from? From whom? The Jebusites. He let them stay.
As I said, old dust. I’ll have to give that sandy dust that I sweep off the balcony everyday a little more respect.
First impression, as someone at the handle end of a taut dog leash: walls, fences, and broken glass. The beige stones of the low walls have holes in them, look old, but they still block us from that apparent field of wasteland, from the hidden courtyards, from everything except this glass strewn uneven sidewalk.
Once the dog has found some dry [cedar? pine?] needles on which to relieve herself, I can notice local life. The people standing on the corner are not pub overflow, as in London. They have come to buy the oval bread a woman is selling from a basket. There is also a basket of eggs. Men speak to the dog but we do not understand. Across the street, a man splashes bottled water on the windshield of his parked car, while the wipers flap, removing dust. For there is dust.
At the park, the muddy ground is finally bare of leaves. The high grey tendons of leafless trees scratch at the tenebrous morning sky. Frost has given a hat-hair limpness to the hellebores and has edged with brown the early rhododendron blooms. Chill, close, an air of expectancy.
Such doom and gloom to be found on the internet about the future of reading, of fiction, of books. And yet. The window washer tells me he likes to read non-fiction, and rattles off a list of recent reads. Biographies of sports celebs, politicians, people’s experience of war. Nothing unusual in this except that he reads at the end of a fourteen-hour working day, or on a rare day off. He works long hours to get by, and when he isn’t working, his favourite thing to do is read.
This morning, after I witnessed an exchange of goods between vendors, the vegetable vendor told me that this job feeds him, and is much needed, as he is a student. There was a pause while I speculated: student of acting, agriculture, assets? “Of what,” I asked.
“I like that,” I said, “the market vendor philosopher.” He looked dismayed. I guess I should have said, “the philosopher market vendor.” Or maybe the problem is with the words “market vendor.” There is probably a jazzier English version for guys who sell stuff at the market. Marketeer?
There’s a pay and display stand in the park parking lot. And it seems to suit the height of nobody. The more elegant man stands with one foot forward, knee slightly bent, arm extended as if he were holding a sword, fingertip stretching for the buttons. More typical is the boxer, who stands with legs apart, knees bent, shoulders thrown back, and from this position positively punches the machine. Thumb punches. The third sort I’ve spied is the lover, the man who embraces the machine with an arm resting atop it while swaying his body out and away so that his face leans into it. An aggressive embrace that ends only when the machine spits out the required ticket.
At least none of them have a purse to ponder. The women also display three poses. The ballet dancer, who simply bends her knees, lowering her torso while keeping her posture straight. The twerker, who thrusts out her behind while leaning her torso forward for an intimate moment with the machine, haunches twitching impatiently. Finally, the yoga balance, the woman whose back is plank straight, and whose purse dangles beneath her chest, a swaying temptation.
Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.
–Richard Conniff, “Menagerie: Useless Creatures,” Opinionator Blog The New York Times, 13 September 2014. Brought to my attention by Alan Mattingly in “No Hurry for the Wandering Mind,” The New York Times International Weekly, Sunday 9 November 2014, p. 1.
From England to Canada, from the land of brick and gardens to the land of concrete. A cheap hotel near the airport for one night shocks me back into Canadian life. Carpet on concrete floors — that smell. Plastic cutlery at the breakfast buffet, styrofoam cups, plastic plates, plastic glasses in the room. Zap zap zap. Oh for the small stuffy mouldy room above the pub, with an English breakfast downstairs with real cutlery and crockery, a hot cuppa and no feeling of having violated the environment to eat cold eggs and tepid tea.
Seen from the bus (not today) on Kensington, a man in a cream kurta (long shirt) with matching cap, white embroidered, cradling in his arm a bundle, the white points of which must be sharp, as he twice tries to rest this end of the bundle in his palm then quickly shifts it up. A bundle of peacock feathers, the dark tips curling up over his shoulder. Peacock blue against his cream shirt. Who will buy?
The peacocks in Holland Park, in full feather, seek sunny splotches of grass on which to fan. Throat-piping to the hens hiding in the shrubbery.
White soda foam of a palm in bloom.
Evergreen hedges showing off their hair cuts with bright green new growth.
A tree unknown to me. Its long soft dark green needles fringe branches that hang like skirts lifted for a curtsy.
Did you ever wonder how the fairies and lovers could, semi-dressed, spend the night in a woods in the third week of June in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? After three Mays in England, I can explain how June can be mid-summer. Of the four warm sunny days that occur each year, two fall before June 21 and two fall after. No, seriously, it is already summer here.
The half hour before the park closes. Nearly empty of people. At the outdoor cafe, a streetperson, dressed in black, zipping his black bag. The white police van slowly making its way to the far gate. Lovers oblivious to time. Dogs leashed and led away. Peacocks parading loose, the males in full colour. Yesterday one fanned his plummage; white fluffy feathers behind the fan pulsated with the wings’ movement. Emerald and turquoise rainbow. Peahens partied in the children’s playground, swooping from structures.
Daffodils fade in meadows and on banks. Primulas and tulips share beds. Almond and cherry blossoms and others nameless to me cloud the air. Looking up causes me to walk into a congregation of bugs and take one in the eye — midges? gnats? There is probably a word for evening flies. A dog barking behind a tree-bush draws my attention. From the space behind the big bush comes a man walking quickly, not looking back. Then a man’s voice behind the bush, deep, trying to shush the dog, and then saying to it, “Go. Go. Go!” Deep angry voice, I think. The second man emerges with a ball launcher in hand, the dog running ahead to play ball. He too is in a hurry, taking long strides away.
His anger at the dog reminds me of the woman earlier this week, whose dog escaped her attention, ran down the length of the leash-free area to the park entrance, where someone had tipped out a sackful of stale bread. Supposedly pigeon food. The black lab gorged itself frantically. The owner came running. Abandoning the bread, the dog, as best a dog can with its tail between its legs, ran to her. With her open palm she whacked it on the side of the head. It flattened itself to the ground. She then beat it on its ribs with the flat plastic case of the extension lead. Meanwhile, three teen schoolgirls watched from a bench, sandwiches in hand. The middle and tallest girl said, “She hit her dog!” And then, “Oi! Stop beating your fucking dog.” And then, “Leave your fucking dog alone!” The woman, who had been silent throughout, straightened and walked up the path, posture perfect, away from the girls. The dog on its leash behind her. Although I was shocked by the violence of the dog-owner’s retribution, I recognized the look on her face. It reminded me of me, when I have to jerk the leash to yank the dog away from what she considers street food and what I consider to be possibly poisoned probably rotten and definitely going to cause a mess for me to clean up. A look that says, I wish I didn’t have to, it’s complicated, you don’t understand, I am not Cruella Deville.
Is it hunger that makes me see magnolia blossoms as semi-stirred cherry yoghurt, and pink almond blossoms as candy floss? And what’s this ahead, forcing us to cross the road? A group of middle-aged people are gathered on the sidewalk in front of a building under scaffolding. (Construction carries on through the winter here.) Short bearded men stand with women in dark jackets. Just as I am wondering if they are post-renovation buyers, I recognize that red brick, and just as I say to myself, Hey, that’s Radclyffe Hall’s house, what are they doing to it…, I hear the tour guide say, “She was one of a group of upper-class lesbians.” Pause over the British propensity for class classification. Proof of spring: tourists in this quiet street on a week day.
The sun in the park brings flies to the dog’s coat and bees to the buds and blossoms on trees. There is a haze in the air, of cool and warm meeting in a wet kiss flavoured by the airborne dust of leaf and grass from the tractor mower. Ahead, an alley of trees bright with leaves about to unfurl. Green miasma, I think of this visual haze, but my dictionary confounds me.
Two men approach me jogging fast (or running — at what speed does one become the other?), both wearing a white t-shirt and navy shorts. Bright white in spring sun. One is a head taller than the other, and giraffe bony. The taller of the two sweats more profusely. His run is awkward and in his awkwardness seems to run faster. As if his feet are too far away for him to fully control. The shorter man jog-runs easily, barely sweating. The taller man talks, using an English I don’t understand. I pick out: marketing, contract, go forward. The shorter man listens and does not speak. The taller man’s face is loose, his jaw flopping out his words, while the other’s is tight, a nose-breather, his eyes on the ground ahead of him. He listens and does not speak or nod, his face expressionless. They pass, misting my air with their sweat. Looking back at them, I see that the taller man has black panels on the sides of his t-shirt, under his armpits and along his ribs, making him look thinner from a front or back view. Not identical tees, thus not company outfits. The taller man leans his head down to talk to his mate, angling his shoulders, speaking confidently, confidingly. The silent reception of his words bothers me. Don’t trust him, I want to shout to the tall man. His confidences flow as easily as his sweat. He needs a towel to mop it up, to stop his mouth.
I walk on, consoling myself with the thought that the shorter man may be finding it hard to keep up with the long legs. He may seem tight, locked, he may be silent because he can’t talk and breathe. Or he doesn’t want to inhale the miasma coming off the taller man. Miasma: an infectious or noxious vapour, esp. from putrescent organic matter, which pollutes the atmosphere; a polluting, oppressive or foreboding atmosphere or influence.
Pronounce as: me-asthma (if you don’t say the “th”).