The Cedar Men

  

     The cedar men line the highways and byways of the passages into this world. You can see them poised on the horizon, lining the distant train tracks, lurking in shadow or naked light. They huddle against the cold, battered by the winds or stand burned brown and cinnamon under the heat of the summer sun. Come quietly from the darkness of the forest path into the blazing light of the clearing and you might catch one frozen, hiding still, in the open.

    The cedar men don’t always bleed red sap under a crown of bitter green. The cedar men aren’t always cedar men. Unbound, unnamed, they might form an unexplained shadow on the wall or a haze of mist in the mirror behind the gazer’s reflected image. The cedar men are the hand that touches your shoulder with a grasp so firm that surprise is the only emotion registered when looking behind to see no one there. The cedar men have voices of their own and mischievous fingers that flip switches to darken rooms or fling open kitchen drawers and scramble the contents looking for what they only know. The eye of the camera catches the unexpected glints of blue and mauve, reflected lights of flashing eyes.

     My mother swears that I am her own and I know I am. My mother swears I am hers alone but I know that is not so. I am Wednesday’s child. Tow headed, fair browed, my face is the full strawberry moon that waxes in the darkest sky marked by uneven cat’s eyes. The night finds my dreams in full technicolour flowing into the full light of day. I follow the ways of the enatic line. Those who blaze the brightest exude a heat radiating out to touch. My blood takes a small hand in the untangling of the skeins that flow around us all and rarely we are permitted a clear glimpse of the will and way of things.

     I see the cedar men laid bare from a distance. The tide of glamory hides the essence as the inner eye focuses on the form to define it. All four seasons see the hunched backs and high collars turned up in disguise. The danger lies in lingering too long. Another’s face can become the borrower’s if worn too often or too long. The habit of tree, darkness or lonely echo will become the truth and a cedar man will be no more…but others will take its place. They will come to watch, to warn, to cry and to play in the humming wires, the camera eye, the distance, the dark corners and the empty rooms. Just this side of unseen doors, the cedar men wait for us to pass by, hiding out in the open.

 

 

 

 

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Beloved Enemy

     My mother had three children, one boy and two girls. I am firmly in the middle. My birth came as a great surprise to my older brother who assumed, I believe, that he would always be the one and only. Upon my arrival, though he had reached the venerable age of 18 months, he once again took to the bottle and his pram. It was not a huge inconvenience to my mother given that my brother had, at that stage, become a quiet wanderer. During nap time, which she enjoyed as well, and in the evening when he was to be fast asleep in his crib, he was often AWOL. In desperation she had taken to covering his crib with chicken wire, caging him in to stop him from wandering off. Immediately after my birth, his jealously kept him close at hand. He could be found as near as the pram or only as far away as the green eyed monster would let him wander. He eventually got over it and we settled into an uneven constantly broken and renewed truce that would last as long as convenience allowed.  

     When my sister came along several years later I reacted to the usurping of my title of Darling Baby with the same grace as my brother before me. Although I’d been allowed to name the baby, I promptly decided I hated her and set out on a mammoth campaign to make sure she knew. As she grew she learned to give as good as she got. The pitched battles in our shared room and the sharp cruelties of girls were so much more vicious and coldly dismissive than anything our brother could have thought of. His forays were all brute strength and oafish bullying. My sister and I were skilled surgeons. Our battles were built up in scalpel sharp incisions of disdain, delicate balances of power and emotional distance. Our contention was so great, our abhorrence so pure, it does not surprise me, that such strong emotion brought about a closer friendship than that uneasy truce with my brother could ever have accomplished. There were signs that we would be good friends but the seeds did take a long time to grow. As long as we did as a matter of fact but that in itself is not unusual.

     And so we are now friends, not my brother with us, but my sister and I to each other. My brother has chosen to walk apart from all of us but we two walk more and more together. Looking back over the years now the bloodiest of our skirmishes are the ones we bring out to parade around for the amusement of ourselves and others. Our greatest battles have taken on the sepia toned patina of nostalgia. I maintain that my victories were the greatest in number and the most definitive in nature. I’m sure, if asked, my sister would say the same. But I can not deny that there was one moment that must live on in infamy in the pantheon of sisterly rivalry. On that day, my sister, through luck or chance, stood supreme.

     She must have just turned 10, which would have made me 13.  There had been tragedies in our family and we were much on our own in those days. She was just starting to come into her height at 10 with maybe 8 more inches to go. She was thin with dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair, all flash and temper. At 13, almost 14, I was an inch short of as tall as I was ever going to be with stick thin arms, fair skin and strawberry blond cold disdain.

     Our white stucco house was bustled in the backyard by a raised stone patio (those being in fashion then) which in turn was sheltered by a large oak tree. The ground between the tree and the patio was rutted and bare. The dirt had been scraped and flattened by the feet of innumerable neighbourhood kids who’d taken a ride on the tire swing hanging from the lowest branch. The end of the yard was marked by an old battered metal shed. We had avoided the shed since my sister’s birthday when my mother had managed to step on a rusty nail while playing hide and seek. The nail had passed through the bottom of her foot and out the top necessitating a break in the festivities and a hospital visit. No one had gotten around to moving the offending board and nail and so the shed sat abandoned with its motley collection of bikes, croquet mallets, horseshoes and lethal metal tipped lawn darts.

     On any given afternoon any of us usually could be found throwing those deadly projectiles straight up in the air and then running like hell to avoid being impaled by the rapidly descending death spear or trying to hit each other with croquet balls or mallets if we thought we could get away with it . But given the recent threat of the rusty nail I had opted for a reclining ride on the patio swing instead while my sister turned slow circles on the tire. My sister had wearied of swinging on her rubber perch and was ready for a ride on the patio swing. I was comfortable, lying fully reclined and stretched out to my full 5 foot 4 inch length, and had no intention of accommodating her.

     Vitriol began to flow and the curses flew back fast and hard. All those arguments and we never raised a hand to each other, but this day was a day the line was almost crossed. That was something we would try on briefly years later but as children physical pain was our brother’s territory. Ours wasn’t the way of force or the fist. We fought dirty and pummeled each other with words.

     My sister’s frustration began to mount and I felt that victory was at hand. Still lying down on the swing I opened my mouth for one more cutting remark and she leaned forward and spit at me. It might have been the wind, it might have been fate taking a hand or it might have been pure luck, who knows? Whatever it was, it sharpened my sister’s aim and my cutting crow of victory became a nauseous gargle as her glob of saliva plopped into my mouth.

     Shock on her part and spit in mine silenced us both, but only for a moment. In a frozen plateau we paused while both of us absorbed the act and its consequences. If I hadn’t been lying down I would have caught her. I still don’t know what I would have done if I had. She made it into the house and up the stairs in record time. She hit the bathroom door a split second before me where she locked herself in until the coast was clear. And really even if I’d caught her what good would it have done?

     On that day, nothing could have been more perfect than that one moment. All the forces had conspired and there was no offensive I could have mounted to equal that one magnificent act. I tried. Later on that night I brushed my teeth and spit my toothpaste into the tub while she was having a bath but it was an empty gesture. She knew it and I knew it. On that day, I had to concede the field of victory to her. But I did live to fight another day, many other days as a matter of fact. I had my own victories just as complete and undeniable but those I will save for another time.

     She was to me, as I was to her, my most esteemed and beloved enemy. We are still soldiers of a sort but life and time have made us allies. As an adult I don’t know if I could love her as much as I do if I hadn’t hated her so completely as a child. I know the depth and breadth of her. We have passed through the fire and have come away tempered, annealed and strengthened in ourselves. I know some of her sins and all of her foibles as she knows a measure of mine. We have warred and like old campaigners we share a past that binds us together. Once my enemy but always and still beloved, she remains ever my sister and finally, my friend.

 

 

The King’s Highway

     The 400 series highways were introduced in Ontario during the early 1950s.The MacDonald Cartier Freeway is the longest of the 400 series highways. Although construction began in 1947 it wasn’t until 1965 that the MacDonald Cartier Freeway was dedicated to honour the memory of Sir John A MacDonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier and their roles as Fathers of Confederation. If you were to mention the McDonald Cartier Freeway hereabouts you might have most people scratching their heads. Ask for directions to “the 401” and they’ll set you straight on your way.

     The black top ribbon of The King’s Highway 401 is born in the gritty outskirts of Windsor and stretches to the Quebec border. A peak day for the 401 can see upwards of 400,000 vehicles racing along carrying goods and people up and down one of the busiest highways in North America. More than half the population of Canada has settled along the 815 km that make up its rolling length. As I reside within a 5 minute car ride to this busy corridor I fall well within that percentile.

    

 

     I have traveled the length of the 401 and some of the other 400 series as well. It was as a passenger that I first took to the road and became familiar with the Q.E.W. (Highway 451), its giant concrete lions, its comings and goings.  Now living more than 2 hours away any trip back “home” brings pangs of nostalgia but really I’ve never driven the Queen Elizabeth Way.  The 401 is my highway. It was the one I first drove on after earning my license and it is the one I continue to travel on weekly.

     I like to drive but mostly in fair weather. I’ve done my share of winter driving and if I have to I will but I’d rather not. The weather is notorious for being fickle in this part of the country. As the saying goes, “Don’t like the forecast? Wait five minutes.”

     May is tornado weather. It’s a given here and we don’t get worked up unless there’s a reason to. I was shocked several years ago when confronted by a concerned cousin visiting from the south. Everyone knows what to do if one touches down. I couldn’t understand what she was so worried about. Actually the water spouts over the lake are quite beautiful when viewed from the shore.

     In winter snow squalls off the lake and in the snow belt can reduce visibility to zero. It’s always good to have a passenger to help navigate. Having someone lean out of the passenger window to make sure you’re not drifting off the road is sometimes a necessary evil when you’ve got to get home and the weather is keeping the plows off the roads.

     My stretch of the highway has become familiar to me over the past 15 years. It’s said that women navigate by landmark and I’ve definitely staked my out. The best ones are those that are closest to my house. Outward bound they hold the promise of the journey and on my return they herald the comfort of home. No matter how familiar the route I never fail to see something marvelous and new.

     The Monarch butterflies migrate every year flying incredible distances to rest in the southern heat of Mexico. On the way they cross the dark road. It’s only one of many that they cross but it will claim the lives of quite a few. The heat of the asphalt, the updrafts and washes of the passing trucks and cars are just one more hurdle on that monumental journey. The sides of the road are littered with just as many calico petals as the fields further on.

     The mild weather this winter has changed the migration schedule of local and northern hawks. On any given day the trees and power lines along the highway play host to a pageant of keen eyed hunters. The dark black wires and frosted branches bend under the weight of feathered predators watching for the unwary both on the roads and in the fields.

     The crest of an overpass draws the car level with the flights of other native birds. Flocks of Canadian geese (lingering further north as well) take off from stubble crowned fields. Struggling against gravity and air their wings push forward as their slender necks waver in serpentine curves fighting the winter wind.

     Deer roam the fields and occasionally brave the road. Most don’t make it but some do. The Sybil like weather makes for incredible cloud breaks, sunrises and sunsets. Columns of light rend the blackened mists to strike the ground like the hand of God (Cecil B. DeMille would have been green with envy).

     The fields roll out in Grant Wood patchwork quilts. Each season’s theme is expressed in the truest values of the spectrum. Rivers, streams and great stretches of fresh water reflect the whims of the firmament. Nature and her Darwinian cycles edge and over lap the road that leads on, a different story on each page. The jeweled cities, worlds of faces, cultures and languages anchor the road that is both a slave and a master. Drop a finger on the map and find a Shakespeare play, a Dali painting, a dim sum lunch or an artery clogging poutine for dinner. Dance to Caribbean strains, sink into the depths of the blues or rise up to symphonic heights.

     Over it all is the sky, bottomless and spinning off into space. It is a cobalt, phthalo, cerulean, ultramarine, peach, harvest gold, coral, ebony, jewel encrusted, aurora borealis crowned schizophrenic beauty. The hard black top winds through the heartland joining it all together. Interchanges snake off like thin tentacles opening the way to unknown people and places. Drawing us in and sending us out. Each day is a new day and though the road is asphalt and rock bed solid it never travels the same route twice and neither do I.   

 

Light of Divination

The moon is a scrying bowl. The blue crystal filters the essence and makes the hidden known.  The three walk together.

     There is the anchor, a shell that parts the air and stakes a claim in this world. The shade of conscience follows compliant and obedient, a creature of the tame and civilized light. The pagan shade also passes. A well kept secret, the old face is laid bare cupped in the reflected depths of the mirror.

     The anchor moves and the filament light fades. Conscience turns to charcoal grey. The face of the first god wavers and swells in the crystal waters of the diviner’s light. Tightrope taut, three waver on the rim. A cold gust of wind sends a cloud to mar the depths and the curtain drops. Keeping secrets now the filament light waxes to swallow the trinity whole.

     The depths hold an echo. The moon is a scrying bowl and its’ crystal light filters the essence and makes the hidden known.

 

Little Things

     The whole day stretches ahead. There are vague dark clouds of laundry and a dinner thawing in the sink hovering on the proverbial horizon. But that dinner is hours away and I’m sure that everyone has at least one ugly laundry day outfit to get them through the afternoon. Nirvana consists, in this one moment, of a steaming cup of coffee (1 sugar and cream), scissors, a ballpoint pen and…sighhhhh… the Saturday paper.

     I love the Saturday paper. It has a weight and a presence. Although it will be censored and bent to whatever political leaning that is particular to the paper owning conglomerate some trickle of truth always finds it way through.

     The Saturday paper has the best obituaries and the personal page is full of pictures of people celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries, college graduations and first birthdays. The pictures I like the most are the old photos that tell a story even without the captions below. The opinion section and the editorial letters are always a topic for discussion and I clip and circle the workings of minds and philosophies that parallel or challenge mine.

     I have scrapbooks of photos I’ve clipped from the Saturday paper. These pictures come from all and any pages and depict everything from Mayan Temples to cenotaph ceremonies. Most people don’t realize that you don’t have to look very far to see artists at work. It’s been in the paper that I’ve seen the most compelling and emotional photographs. I collect the ones that touch me the most.

     The members of my family recognize and grudgingly accept my love for the Saturday paper.  It’s a get out of jail free card and I’m not required to answer the phone, curb the dog or find those elusive nail clippers that seem to run from everyone else but me (popping into view when I open the drawer instead of hiding when whoever had said they looked "really hard").

     There is a method to my pleasure. I do divide the Saturday paper into sections and read them from least favourite to the most. The sports, cars and classified are my brussel sprouts…I read them quickly. I don’t enjoy them but one’s "diet" needs to be well rounded. Tragedy is liver and onions…if you love liver and onions my apologies but I detest them. A steady diet of force fed liver and onions suits some as does a steady diet of tragedy but that has never been my taste. In my youth, when it was my turn to cook dinner, my mother knew better than to put liver and onions on the menu if she didn’t want to find herself eating burnt shoe leather…my philosophy being if it was burnt we wouldn’t be forced to eat it. Everything else falls into place. Carrots are the politics and regional events. Steak and shrimp are the last three sections I read, the colour comics (Bizarro is the best), the Editorial Viewpoint pages and finally the Entertainment section.

     The Entertainment section carries reviews of galleries, movies, CDs and books. I love the book reviews. I’ve always been a book person and I’ll take a book over a movie any day. I love words (you may not have noticed). I suppose that’s part of the reason I love the Saturday paper. I could read the paper on line but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. There’s something satisfying in seeing the whole thing laid out there in front of me, the large pages full of print, pictures, events and thoughts. I love the sound of those pages turning. Sometimes I forget that the ink dirties your fingers and later on in the day I’ll see a smudge where I’ve rubbed my nose or brushed my fingers across my cheek (hopefully it’s not after I’ve come in from a quick trip to the store in town).

     After all the recipes, photos, opinions and events it is time for dessert, the Saturday Stumper crossword puzzle. As the week advances each day the crossword puzzle increases in difficulty until Saturday when the stumper is posted. I love a really hard one that might take you an hour or two to finish, those are the very best. The Saturday Stumper must be done in ballpoint pen, well at least when I do it. It’s not that I’m arrogant about my crossword skills. I simply like the way the pen feels against the paper as I fill the squares in. It’s not exactly living dangerously but since you do only live once (unless you’re a Buddhist) why not do the crossword puzzle in ink?

     I’m always a little sad to see the end of the Saturday paper but not overly so. I know there will be one for me next Saturday barring my death, nuclear war or an unusually quick sell out at the store. The big adventures in life are lovely and nice to have every once in a while but big adventures can be demanding and difficult. It’s the little things, how we choose to spend the time between those dramas and expeditions, which determine the timbre and quality of a life. Next Saturday, if I’m lucky enough, I’ll let go of the wheel and let the household drive itself for an hour or two while I enjoy my get out of jail free card, a cup of coffee and a bit of nirvana with a ballpoint pen and a pair of scissors.

Above and Below

The scale has tipped and the night slides into the hours that close on dawn. Unforgiving, the caustic breath of glacial air is an acid bite that wounds the throat and burns the lungs. The silence of a sleeping world is pierced by the sharp break of crusted snow underfoot. The protest of fractured crystal banks from the wall of pines and races back through the thin cold air. The winter cirrus, a haze of hexagonal gauze, surrounds the moon and crowns her with a rainbow halo. That luminous pearl, no coy satellite amongst her diamond courtiers, blazes out from under the veil of her father’s shadow while reflected shades of sky wash the snowy fields in lapis waves.

Winter Formula

 

 

Frozen π

 

The window frame centers the wall, a bas relief of cream against the waves of burnt sienna. Six feet high and three feet wide the window is cor niced and crowned by the benevolent gaze of beveled bullseye rosettes.

The muntin bisects the window into north and south. Each pole is divided by nine, graphing eighteen adjacent worlds each distinct yet sequential.

The soft fog of curtain sketches the surface in cabochons and brilliants.  Within those hollows the concave drops of grey winter light rise up to rim the threaded borders. Miniscule mirrors reflect and magnify the morning composition.

Angels dancing on the head of a pin, each lavender puddle is a universe. Archimedes’ constant reflects from the pattern scattering in parallel arcs of fixed circumference. Echoes falling back, whorls of frozen mer ingue float down to cover the dark green of cedar bows.

 

Deconstructing Angels

     It’s a large canvas, too tall to stand upright in the backroom of the basement. The acrylic paint has been built up over a number of years and the layers have had more than enough time to cure into a state of perpetuity. The original intent was a study of light and dark in an attempted ode to Caravaggio. No cherubic Raphaelite angels grace this plane. Like tormented saints the ravaged faces of the divine and human intermix in a supplication to the father above. Angels’ wings, feathers black smoke sooted, cradle the fallen as voices tear away into unseen winds and eyes search the heavens for solace. An avenging angel, a comforting angel, a guardian angel, an angel of death; here they are all the same. Brilliant blossoms of flaming petals open to lave in heated waves that rise up to harry the stricken.

      I have carried this painting or perhaps it has carried me through some decidedly difficult periods in my life. The large canvas was a rare expense and as such I approached it with some trepidation. It doesn’t pay to be too precious with this type of thing and soon enough I found myself embroiled in the form and substance of my subject and medium. As my days became chaotic the canvas followed suit. Hours were built up in layers of tears and uncertainly, blind corridors that led nowhere, glorious moments of revelation, grueling backtracking and the light of discovering and learning.

     The play of flames upon an arched back, the tendons stretched in an angel’s out flung arm, the soft white neck vulnerable and bare and the circle of grace…all these tell a two sided story. The interpretation of art is always a personal thing, the story told will be coloured by the experiences of the viewer. Anyone seeing this particular painting might comment on its biblical theme or its period treatment of light. That is the package it wears. Only I see bones underneath. Like all my paintings, whatever the apparent topic, it is a self portrait. In the manner of Dorian Grey’s secret canvas it carries my face and the toll of a difficult period and lessons dearly bought. Despite what it seems on the surface, the bones are there for me to see.

     Bones are the problem now. The time has come to let it go. It will never be complete in the traditional sense of the word. Like a loyal dog that has overstayed its time the cold sting of the needle is the only release.  I did toy with the idea of a funeral pyre but only briefly. The canvas had been much too expensive and I am much too thrifty to waste it just for the thrill of the gesture. If performance art was still my milieu, I might, but my college days are far behind me. Sanding and a good coat of gesso seemed the best solution and now I find myself deconstructing angels.

     As each layer turns to dust under the palm sander the clock turns back. A shadow there leaked from that moment. This knot of flame and the short hard strokes of the brush burst from another. Each feather is a memory, a lesson painfully learned or a step gladly taken. Though the sander smoothes the surface and the gesso erases the pigment the bleached bones will remain. The canvas will become something new. Layer upon layer the paint will build up until a different story, which is really still the same old story with small variations, is told again. The hand will trace the patterns while the eye judges the shades of light and dark and the balance of the composition. Inside where the bones have come home to roost, familiar enough to be forgiven but too sharp to be forgotten, I will pass the time deconstructing angels.