Goodbye, Britain! I’m waving a hanky in your direction. It was nice knowing you. Thank you for your music, literature, comedy, films, tv shows, art, science, museums, beer, tea, gardens and eccentrics. I’m glad I got a chance to study in your Cambridge.
I’m glad I got to get to know many of your own, to the point of marrying one, even. Glad I got to live in your London and learn to navigate your Tube. Glad I got to experience your delightful pubs and walk through your sweet countryside. Oh, and I must not forget that I am one of you. British blood courses through my veins. There’s even a town somewhere in you that bears the name of my ancestors, Wiggington.
Venturesome. It’s a mouthful and a trait that’s served me well. Today I was remembering how, when I was around 11 years old, one sunny, Saturday afternoon, I called out to my mom in the other room that I was going to go ride my bike to the park. In my hometown of Huntington Beach, California, there is a 343 acre natural oasis called Central Park. Lush with foliage, towering trees, ponds and lakes, it serves to break up the monotony of concrete beige walls that surround tract after tract of suburban housing in the area. Once at the park, I idly cycled down the asphalt path. After a few minutes, I spotted a group of people ranging in age playing volleyball. They appeared settled in for the day, with a full spread on the picnic table and blankets laid out for lolling on. A family outing, presumably. Not knowing any better, I leapt off my bike, dumped it on the grass, ran up to them and said, “can I play?” I was a lanky, agile tomboy at that age and athletic, had won ribbons and trophies in track and field, basketball, softball, etc. Bemused, they shrugged, said, “sure.” My new friends soon realized I was good at volleyball and made me feel welcomed.
Hours passed and I played with vigor, slurping down the soda and chips they offered me, laughing, joking, getting sunburned. When I realized the sun was low in the sky and a chill had crept into the breeze, I told them I’d better get going. We said cheery goodbyes and I biked home. I strolled through the front door to the sight of my waiting parents. “Where have you been all this time?!” my mom cried out. I said that I’d been playing volleyball. “With who?!” they asked. I explained that it was a bunch of random people I didn’t know. They looked aghast but I didn’t see what the fuss was all about. I told them I had a great time and that they gave me snacks. My folks shook their heads and looked at each other. “She’s your kid,” Mom said to Dad. “No, she’s your kid,” Dad deadpanned.
It was this same streak that compelled me to drive up Pacific Coast highway with my then-boyfriend when I was 18, from Huntington Beach all the way to Seattle. To hop a train and travel solo cross country when I was 21; that lead me to relocate to Ireland temporarily when I was 26; that moved me to lease a rustic, hundred-year old cabin at 7000 feet in the San Bernardino mountains and live the life of a mountain woman for a year. It lead me to seek new vistas, to peek behind walls and hills, to drive lonely back roads all around the U.S. It also emboldened me to take dozens and dozens of solo hikes in the Mojave desert during the five years that I lived in Henderson, Nevada.
One day in April earlier this year, I drove deep into the Mojave within the boundaries of Lake Mead Recreation Area, parked my Chevy and made my way up a steep, rubbly path towards a summit that I’d read would provide a beautiful view. As I neared the top, I veered off the trail, curious to see what was over to my left. I gingerly inched along a narrow ledge, my trusty Canon in my left hand and my right hand bracing me against a wall of rock. I paused and looked out over a surreal, awe-inspiring landscape, of Navajo sandstone crevasses, one after another, reaching towards the jagged peaks of the Muddy mountains. I took a picture. I’m honored to say that this photo now graces the cover of the 2017 state of Nevada geology calendar, published by the NV Bureau of Mines and Geology.
In an ancient lakebed in southern Australia some 42,000 years ago, the body of one very tall man was carefully placed in what anthropologists believe is the oldest intentional Homo sapiens burial site. Although it is now known that even our ancestral kin, the neanderthals, also buried their dead with care, laying personal artifacts such as stone tools beside them in their graves.
Along with our big brain cases and opposable thumbs, another characteristic of Homo sapiens that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the ritualized mourning of the deceased. The behavior humans exhibit when grieving for their dead, behavior that is commonplace in just about every culture around the globe, is illustrative of conscience and sympathy, sensitivity and depth of feeling.
We humans take our dead, encase them and lower their boxed body into the ground. We pray or chant, lay flowers on their grave. Or, alternately, the deceased is placed in a kiln, reduced to ash then set adrift on a breeze or enveloped in porcelain and placed on a mantle. But the soul of the dead cannot be contained and evaporates, squelched by a lack of electrical pulses.
I believe we lose two people with each person’s death: The outer self and the inner one. We lose the fleshy person we hugged, loved and laughed with in life. And we lose the secret, internal person, who existed with private fears, loves unrequited, dreams yet attained-their unshared stories, real and imagined, forever lost.
We Homo sapiens demonstrate respect for life by respecting our dead. Conversely, we demonstrate respect for the dead when we respect the living. And we do this in the wake of the loss of a loved one by bringing together family and community to mourn and share their grief. This is what separates man from beasts. This lay at the very heart of culture and civilization.
Natural disaster is on a lot of people’s minds these days, or at least mine. Climate change, drought, earthquakes…there are myriad potential disasters that can strike any region, any time. The prospect is unsettling, terrifying, even. The Las Vegas valley, where I make my home, is susceptible to a variety of natural catastrophes, including prolonged dust/wind storms, flooding and earthquakes. I trained in disaster preparedness when I volunteered for the Red Cross while living in Virginia and learned that a little preparedness can go a long way. This is why I keep a disaster survival kit at the ready, which I’ve lovingly dubbed the Big Pink, since the majority of my supplies reside in a huge pink plastic container.
Survival experts recommend keeping a kit that contains supplies to last for approximately 72 hours. How they arrived at that time frame, I don’t know, but who am I to question the experts! In the aftermath of, say, a large earthquake, it’s a safe bet your home will be without power, water and gas–if it has even remained standing–for a period of time. Your home will be plunged into the pre-industrial age until services are restored. Or you may find that you have to camp outside, as the structure may be too unstable to reside in.
My kit is relatively small since it’s just for me and my two cats, Harold and Mod. So what’s in the Big Pink? I’ve divvied up items so that all first aid/emergency supplies live in one shoebox, and foodstuffs are in another shoebox. Those boxes are tucked into the Big Pink.
Let’s take inventory:
Food Box – Energy gel packets, 1 jar of peanut butter, cans of tuna/cat food, 1 pound of trail mix, ramen noodles, 1 can opener, plastic forks/knives.
First Aid/Emergency/Toiletries Box – Coleman poncho, waterproof matches, toothpaste/brush, baggie with 1st aid supplies such as antibiotic ointment, bandaids, fem sups, Tylenol/Ibuprofen, shampoo, multitool, Ace bandage, deodorant, soap, comb, sling.
Rest of the Big Pink – A bucket and plastic trash bags, change of clothes, shoes, sweater, towel, plastic cups/bowl, Coleman lamp, flashlight, handi-wipes, rolls of toilet paper, 1 purple blanket, dry kitty kibble, a backpack in the event I have to evacuate and lastly, a copy of Les Stroud’s excellent survival guide, so I’ll be able to figure out what the hell I’m doing if the need arises to break out the Big Pink in an emergency.
The Big Pink – my kit, not the album! – is not perfect but it’ll do for a few days. I plan to add some more food stuffs, like protein bars. Some things that would be worthwhile to add include water purification tablets and cash, since any stores open may not be able to take cards during that time. Also, I keep my important documents stashed in a portable safe, and I have several days worth of water stored in jugs beneath my kitchen sink.
Me, Harold and Mod are ready for the apocalypse. So long as it only lasts 72 hours!
***My thoughts are with the victims of the Nepal quake today***
I wrote my first song when I was 11 and not long afterwards, my first poem. I can’t recall the name or subject of the poem but I’m sure it was completely narcissistic and terrible. But, then as now, I enjoyed the process of writing poetry – choosing words to paint a scene or mood. It’s like creating a word mosaic. So I kept at it. I was first published in my high school newspaper when I was 15. I remember the gleeful, and yet exposed, feeling I had opening up the pages and seeing those 3 poems there in print. I was a minor celebrity in Ocean View High School’s corridors, at least among those who bothered to glance at the paper. In other words, I became my English teacher’s pet.
Jump ahead to age 24 me, when I started publishing Burnt Toast (which I talk about in more detail in this previous post: https://angellacanfora.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/iphonus-interruptus/). Burnt Toast was my poetry zine serving the local community of Huntington Beach, CA. In BT, I published not only my own poems but those of other emerging poets. It was an exciting and fulfilling year and a half made possible by the lack of an internet.
While I continued penning the odd poem here and there through my 20s, it largely took a back seat to songwriting in the late 90s/early 2000s. My musical life at that time was very active, chock full of gigs and recording sessions. Poetry writing became a special occasion desert, a now and again savory crème brûlée as opposed to my regular, meatier musical entrees.
2007, I was married, living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d heard about a yearly writing competition sponsored by Writer’s Digest and so, for kicks, decided to enter a batch of song lyrics in the poetry category. I tidied them up first, reorganized them, fluffed them up then tamped them down again to read more like poems and less like dumb rock songs. A few months later, I received a package in the mail. Five certificates – suitable for framing! – with the titles of 5 of my song/poems and the words “honorable mention” beneath them. Oh, how I laughed…
Divorce a few years later freed up more of my time, so I was able to devote more of it to writing poetry. Though I was also still engaged in the making of music, the playing of the odd gig along with making/exhibiting/selling mosaic art AND a newfound love of landscape photography (whoa, slow down there, Angel! Do you got something to prove? Yeah. Whaddya got?)
And here we are now. 2015. So far this year, I’ve got 2 poems slated for publication in literary magazines. Last year, my poem “Borrego Quiet” placed 5th in the annual Grey Sparrow Press writing contest and was subsequently published in Snow Jewel journal. My poem “Venice Beach Array” was published in Poetry Quarterly last spring. And, psst… you want in on a little secret? Both of them started life as songs! In fact, here’s the song version of “Borrego Quiet”-
Writing poetry is like a game to me – can I say a lot with a minimum of words? Can I move someone in a few short stanzas? I feel like I’m getting away with something, like I’ve entered the poetry world through the back door, by way of music. I enjoy seeing if I can get a particular poem published in a particular journal, get the editors to fall in love with it. And I have nothing riding on it! This isn’t my career, I can have fun! If a poem gets rejected a few times, I can tweak it and submit again. Why not?
While most poets have gone though rigorous MFA programs, I’ve studied the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, etc. I do read and love actual poetry. My favorite poets tend to be those who have a lightness to their touch… a twinkle, a sparkle. I read everyone from Emily Dickinson to Shel Silverstein, to Elizabeth Bishop to Rimbaud to Corso to Dorothy Parker to David Gascoyne to obscure, contemporary poets like myself. I’ll admit there’s a lot of poetry I haven’t been exposed to, especially the classical stuff. But it’s hard to find time when you’re also engaged in a dozen other artistic pursuits and activities and working by day, to boot. But this just gives me something to look forward to exploring.
I tend to steer clear of the formal, the pretentious, the erotic, the horror, the political, the experimental. When I’m at the point where I’m researching magazines to shop a poem around and come across one that says, in regard to what they’re looking for – and this is an actual quote from an actual lit mag’s requirements – “…the aesthetic shrapnel is a common attitude of visceral humanism. We want to provide a megaphone to howling assertions of human subjectivity,” I have to cover my mouth and suppress a little sick before quickly clicking off the page.
Above all, though, I just don’t want to be bored! And I am terrified of writing boring poetry! Or of writing boring anything! Or being bored! Am I boring you now? Oh God, say it ain’t so!!
I don’t know how it happened, I think it was by way of the Pogues, but suddenly in the mid-90s I became obsessed with traditional Irish music. Not the syrupy, overwrought ballads but the bawdy, colorful pub drinking songs and fast-paced, melody-meandering jigs and reels. The Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Bothy Band, the Chieftains were all on my playlist, so I jumped at the chance to visit Ireland in the fall of 1995. I’d been living in Cambridge, England, where I was participating in a study abroad program and me and a bunch of fellow students decided to rent a van to cruise around Ireland’s perimeter on our break. For ten days, we – five male students, one male professor and me – drove from Dublin to Galway to Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, Cork City and Waterford then flew back to England. Luckily, having a tomboy disposition and having been the only girl musician in a rock band, I knew how to conduct myself amongst so much testosterone and got along fine with all them. The guys, on the other hand, occasionally clashed with each other, after one too many pints of Guinness.
The memory of the beauty of Ireland stayed with me as I returned to my studies in Cambridge. I was coming up on the end of the program in December and thought, “right. Ireland’s right there – I love it, love its music, its land, its history, its people, now’s my chance.” At the program’s end, I found myself saying goodbye to my fellow classmates and boarding a plane for Ireland, with only a few bags laden with some books and clothes and my Guild guitar in tow.
I didn’t want to go to Dublin, because that seemed too easy and obvious a choice. I’d fallen for Cork City while there on our trip, had learned at a genealogical center that Cork was the likely town of origin of my ancestors on my mom’s father’s side of the family. I set Cork (the locals pronounced it “Kark”) in my sight lines. I didn’t have much money but did have an overarching optimism and naivete that everything would somehow sort itself out. I boarded a bus from Shannon airport to Cork City, where I disembarked and trudged down rain misted streets. I was looking for a hostel that had been recommended to me, across from the train station on Lower Glanmire Road (the rough side of town, some locals would later furtively inform me). Inside the drafty Georgian house resplendent in bohemian thrift store junk decor, I was one of only two residents – a German gal, Stephanie, also in her mid-20s and a cranky 30-ish, punk rock Irishman, named Damian. In my upstairs room, I could look out over the street, a classic Irish scene of row houses, a pub with a blinking neon sign that pierced through the dilapidated, broken slats of the window’s blinds, for which a towel draped over the rod helped to blot out the light at night. I found that the shower had no hot water available, so I shivered as I tried to soap and rinse as fast as possible in the frigid air, an enormous spider resting peacefully in his web in a corner. A sitting room downstairs had an ever-present peat fire burning where I would thaw out afterwards, the sting of the smoke hard on my eyes.
Stephanie and I fell into an easy friendship. She was waitressing nearby at a cafe and I’d pop in to visit her on breaks. We would sit al fresco, sip coffee and talk about our lives. I told her about how I had once lived in Seattle. Stephanie furrowed her brow quizzically, looked at me and said “you mean SEET-le?” I laughed and said “See-AT-le!” She reached over and pinched my arm playfully.
Since I was fast running low on funds, I began pounding the pavement, dropping into pubs, restaurants, shops, wherever, inquiring for work, pitching my services. But the moment proprietors realized I was an American who didn’t have a work permit they’d shake their heads no. I placed a call in response to a wanted ad for a strawberry picker, but even they were reluctant to hire me without the proper documents. So I did what every musician does in these circumstances, I took to the streets with my guitar. Standing under cloudy skies, chilled to my intestines, with my Guild’s case propped open, I would strum and sing for loose change. I didn’t dare sing Irish songs and open myself up to criticism from traditionalists (“coals to Newcastle” indeed). I stuck with classic rock standards, crowd pleasers – your Beatles, your Dylan, etc.
One afternoon I met a young woman (whose name I can’t for the life of me recall), an aloof, slight, bashful gal with thick, long wild Irish hair, bundled in an oversize brown coat and fingerless gloves. She, too, was a starving musician, played the pennywhistle on a street corner down the block. Since she and I were in the same poor boat, we hung out to enjoy each other’s company but agreed not to perform together. Playing together would mean less money. We each did our “shift,” her on her side of the street, me down the block within view and then we’d meet up at the pub afterwards, where we’d warm up and compare notes. She told me her story: she hailed from a farm in a small village in the Irish countryside but couldn’t take that lifestyle any more. Against her father’s wishes, she’d come to the big city of Cork to see if she could make a living playing traditional music on her pennywhistle.
Friends would say to me, “just find an Irish guy and get him to marry you. Then you’re in and won’t have the work permit problem.” But I found the idea of using someone to further my purposes repugnant. Even though I didn’t have a problem meeting guys at that stage of my life. There were many…like Tim, who I met in a dance club. He was cute, slim with tousled, brown hair and had thought I was a native Irish person. He tried to kiss me after awhile but I shoved him off. I didn’t want a fellow, no matter how cute. That would only complicate things at this stage.
After a couple weeks, I decided that it was time for me to move out of the hostel on Lower Glanmire Road. It was too far from the city centre where all the action was, too long a trek and too seedy an area. I said ‘bye’ to the scowling punk and ‘see you soon’ to Steph and schlepped my belongings from the wrong side of the tracks to a more swank hostel across the road from the university. As I walked in the front door, I could hear the strains of Bob Dylan’s song “Jokerman” playing which made my heart puff up with joy.
This new hostel was cheap, cheerful and crowded, packed with tourists from all over the world – Scandinavians, Italians, Japanese, Australians – it was like a Bennetton ad. This hostel had working showers with genuine hot water, blinds that actually kept out the light and a roomy drawing room with a TV which seemed to always be tuned in to Australian soap operas, go figure.
I settled in and continued my routine of daily busking when the weather allowed. Afterwards I’d hang out with Pennywhistle Girl, pub-hopping to find live music. My days were both monotonous and tense – would I make enough money to get something to eat? Would it be raining? Where was all this leading? How was I going to get my hands on a work permit?
I got an impromptu gig in a pub, where I sat on a chair in a corner, the muted steely gray afternoon light illuminating the patrons faces, people who were so polite and attentive it took me aback. They were thrilled I knew Dylan songs and called for more. I sang some favorites stored up in my head – “Tangled up in Blue,” “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right” and “One More Cup of Coffee,” each song ending with appreciative applause. So unlike the jaded crowds of my native southern California!
A few days later, I found the weather too bleak and blustery for busking. I wasn’t about to sit around the hostel all day, though, so I went for an hours-long walk. I visited the ancient jail (“gaol”) up high in Cork’s hills where I had a magnificent panoramic view of the town down below. I popped into cathedrals, admired their heavy stone facades and stained-glass windows. But I was starting to feel defeated and hunger was eating me. I was getting by in part by the kindness of tourists from the hostel, people who’d give the silly blonde a slice of pizza or a piece of toast. There were others there, who like me, had come to Ireland not as a tourist but to try to settle in awhile. They were poor, too, and so we all helped one another out when we could.
One evening, a young male resident of our hostel burst through the front door excitedly, in his hands, massive turnips. Dozens of enormous purpley-white turnips had tumbled onto the road from the back of a truck. We all bounded outside and giddily harvested the bounty and set about trying to figure out how the hell to prepare them. Even with all the countries represented among us, none of us had eaten turnip before. It was put to a vote and decided we’d slice them up and fry them, like french fries. We all helped out in the massive, industrial-size kitchen, all of us hungry and giggling. We took our plates heaping with our fries in the TV room and agreed that they were terrible, hardly edible, but washed down with a little beer they helped stave off hunger for one more day.
After a couple months, I had to acknowledge to myself that this wasn’t working out. The only way I’d be granted a work permit was if I applied back in the U.S., I’d been told. It was either that, marry an Irish guy or busk and starve for God-knows-how-long. My health was deteriorating from the poverty, the lack of nutrition and I gee-whiz realized why my Irish ancestors immigrated in the first place. After a call home to the States and a teary plea for help, a plane ticket to SoCal was arranged for. But first, I had to travel to London to catch my flight.
I left Cork City for good early one winter evening, Pennywhistle Girl and Stephanie accompanying me to the bus station. I hugged them and said a tearful, exhausted goodbye and then clambered aboard the bus, where I gazed out the window as we toodled through rain-damp villages, towards the coast, to catch the late night ferry across the sea to England.