Meditation at Lost Creek

There are spots along the creekside path — if you can tune out
the highways’ hum, and overlook the pipe from the storm drain
spilling its effluent into the stream, and the plastic bag
caught in a tangle of tree branch reaching down into the water,
between the graffitied bridge supports and the signposts warning
against littering — where you can almost imagine what this place
would have seemed like a hundred, or more, years ago. The anglers
on the banks with their lines trailing in the current, the moss
hanging down from sagging trunks, the way that rock jutting up
from the creek bed snags the surface of the water and roils it
briefly before letting it pass. Walking here gives the mind space
to open, to branch out, drift in the current, allows time
for the mind to breathe in between the buds on the young branches,
a place for memory to grow in the shade beneath the trees.
Step. Step. Each one slightly different in measure, in tempo,
in pitch. The off-key deleted, like the drain pipe and the traffic
noise, the screeching of rails from above, leaving only
the whispered echo of the twenty-three Japanese rail workers
who died here, a little over a hundred years ago, according
to the plaque embedded in a stone along the creekside path.

 

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, 2020

poem

Last night I dreamed you were running
away. I chased after you
like a confused dog, followed
you through strange cities and airports.
I climbed the outsides of office towers and hotels,
searched libraries and salons. When I found you
alone in a café, you closed your notebook
(in which every word was goodbye)
and you stood without looking
at me, and walked away in silence.

When I woke, you were lying
beside me, dreaming
you were traveling alone.

 

© Mark Milner
Vancouver, 2019

Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Stones

In the middle of the city
a field of carefully arranged stones
is calling out.

One stone in particular
calls to me
across mountains
quietly as a whisper
of wind in short prairie grasses
or snow sloped
gently against fenceposts.

There are few of us here
tending to the stones, clearing
the snow and the dead
overgrown grasses and cold
dirt from their faces.

Even though I have memorized the place
it still takes a few tries to locate the right one.

And then it is there.
My father’s name emerging

and the dates
always surprising me
with how many years it’s been now.

The quiet of this place,
this snowy field of stones, where names and dates drift
out of memory. How many years before this is all that is left of us?
Who will visit on a winter’s day
to brush the forgetful snow from our names?

We turn away from the thought.
I say goodbye to the stone.
I promise to return.

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Morning run

metronomic slap slap slap
footfalls like rain falling
wet on the pavement
hard to believe it’s almost six

pair of headlights
slip out of an alleyway
slither through a puddle
depart

and me in XTC
senses working overtime

and crossing the bridge
mind out over the water
heart up over the moon

it is only one step and then another and
another like words falling
wet on the pavement

hard to believe
hard to believe
it’s ten past six and almost home

© Mark Milner, Vancouver, 2018

Accounting

Who profits if you spend less than you save?
Sometimes survival’s as good as it gets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

Working day after day only to stave
Off risk of want means a life of regrets.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s the consonance between live and love
The banality of our daily life forgets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

The free man dies as surely as the slave.
Death is the final payment of our debts.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s a lie that fortune favours the brave.
Blind luck decides the outcomes of our bets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

You can live to work or work to live.
Whatever the balance, time always collects.
You might as well spend it all and not save.
What you do matters more than what you have.

 

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Under Ben Bulben

I left David & Lin’s place this morning filled with gratitude, and just a hint of sadness that I won’t see them (or Davey) again for… who knows how long? The sky was grey with low clouds, and the air was cool and damp. The forecast said rain, but less than it had threatened when I looked yesterday. I loaded the bike and said my goodbyes, and then I was off.

David suggested going to Roundstone, on the south coast of Connemara, and I was happy to take his advice. The ride was brilliant, and it wasn’t long before the low cloud burned off and the air warmed itself in the sunshine yet again. With the exception of about a quarter hour on the bus ride to Lisburn, I’ve had exceptional weather so far on this trip. Knock on wood.

The N59 was a brilliant ride, and could, in different stretches, be renamed The Ram Road, given the number of horned sheep grazing along the verge. (In fairness, there were likely some ewes, and definitely some lambs, but those don’t alliterate.) At one point there was a ram standing on the centre line of the road staring in my direction, as if to say, “Go on, I feckin dare ye.” But I slid past without incident.

The landscape in much of Connemara is, as Oscar Wilde said of, savagely beautiful. Reminiscent of parts of the Rocky Mountains back home, and yet different enough to have a wonderful strangeness mixed with that familiarity. So different from what I’d experienced elsewhere in Co. Galway, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. In place of the lush vegetation I’d grown used to, here everything was rock and scrub, with only the occasional gnarled tree jutting up above the level of the ubiquitous stone walls. No hedgerows here. I have a notion the Highlands will be similarly austere and beautiful, but I’ll find that out soon enough.

After stopping for coffee and a scone (with clotted cream and raspberry jam!) at the Bogbean Cafe, I rode through Cliffden to Westport, watching the landscape transform itself back to lushness, while still retaining a certain wildness.

After a quick lunch (Irish Toasty with salad), I was back on the road and heading steadily northward, through Co. Mayo to Sligo. The N5 has wide lanes with broad shoulders, and the optimism of Irish speed limits finally felt well placed. That wasn’t encouragement enough for some drivers, though, who insisted on keeping to 80 kmh in a hundred zone. I passed them happily, and they seemed happy enough to be passed, pulling a little to the left as I zipped past.

I passed through Sligo all too quickly. I should have stuck to my plan about not booking accommodations until I arrive in a place lesson learned, which I’ll apply in Scotland (or try to).

Just outside the city, I found the churchyard in Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried. I studied Yeats in university, of course, but I had already introduced myself to his poetry in the summer before I began my undergrad in Calgary. I looked at the inscription on the stone, which he composed in his famous poem “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

A motorcyclist, I thought, is as close as we come now to a horseman.

Riding past Ben Bulben, I think I understand why Yeats was so impressed. It stands out from the landscape with conspicuous enormity, much as his poetry stands out. No photograph could hope to convey the feeling – at least, not one I’m capable of taking – so I didn’t stop for it.

Tonight I’m in Bundoran, a slightly sad little seaside resort on Ireland’s northwest coast, in the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in so far. Tomorrow I head eastward, and a little further north, to the Giants’ Causeway, then down to Newtown Abbey, before leaving Ireland behind for Scotland. The threatened rain still hasn’t materialized, and I’m hoping my weather luck holds for a couple more weeks. But, as I’ve said before, I’ll take things as they come. I’m not made of sugar after all.

Towers, cliffs & Celtic crows

One way to tell you’re in Ireland, rather than a particularly lush corner of North America, is the difference in birdsong. Sure, the Irish finches sound pretty much like their Canadian cousins, but Celtic crow definitely do not. They squawk instead of cawing, almost (but not quite) like a dog’s squeeze toy. They’re also smaller & less tricksterish. And at David & Lin’s place there are also cuckoos, which I’ve never heard outside of a clock.

Today I went to the Cliffs of Moher, and I was hoping to see puffins, but didn’t, which I’ll explain later. Puffins are not a bird you’re likely ever to see in Vancouver. Apparently they breed on the cliff tops. But I’m jumping ahead.

I took the coast road down to the Burren, the geographical region of which the Cliffs are a spectacular piece. The road took me through the village of Kinvarra, which is home to, among other things, Dunguaire Castle. It was built in the 16th century, although it has a decidedly medieval feel to it. I decided to stop, since I’d already passed by a bevy of ruined farmhouses, churches and towers in the few days I’ve been here. I decided I shouldn’t pass them all, and besides, today was all about sightseeing.

It costs €8 to go up into the tower, and while the view of the village and the surrounding countryside is good, I’m not sure it’s worth handling over €8 for. I got better pictures from the outside. (At some point I’ll have to transfer some photos over to my phone/iPad from the camera.) Still, I guess they’ve got to raise the money to keep the doors open somehow.

I bought a coffee in the courtyard, and chatted a little with barista about her motorbike, which was parked behind the coffee wagon. Then I headed back to the bike and continued on to the Cliffs of Moher.

Access to the Cliffs’ visitors centre & parking also costs €8, although I don’t feel bad about it. The views are spectacular. And I even made sure I took one picture with my phone. Sadly, I’m blocking most of the view, but I’ll post better pictures later, and in the meantime, there’s loads of pictures on Google.

I walked up to the Norman-looking observation tower, thinking it might some historical relic. But in fact, it was an early attempt at tourist trapping, having been built a mere 183 years ago for Victorian tourists by the then landlord, Cornelius O’Brien. I decided to forego ascending to its battlements.

I’d read in the visitors centre that there was a place to see puffins along a path in the opposite direction from the tower, so I set off to see if I could find them. After a while, though, I started to feel more inclined to find lunch, and so headed back to the snack bar at the visitors centre, which is is called The Puffin’s Nest. Life is pretty funny sometimes.

After lunch and a quick tour through the gift shop, I headed back to the bike. It was already after 1 p.m., and I wanted to make another, less common tourist stop.

I set the GPS for Gort, and when it tried to make me backtrack, I promptly defied it. In my brief and limited experience with the Zumo, this often leads to more interesting routes. Today it resulted in a two-hour detour along wonderfully winding, terrifically twisty, brilliant Burren backroads. Narrow lanes between stone walls and hedgerows, past old stone farm buildings with roofs missing and walls caving, cattle lazing in the sun and horses seemingly posing for photographs.

I passed another castle, and stopped to take a picture since it appears still to be in use, at least as a holiday rental. A little further on I came across the ruin of the Monastery of Kilmacduagh, which was more impressive architecturally.

Eventually I reached the village of Gort, and near that Thoor Ballylee, the tower where Yeats moves with his wife and children in the midst of the Irish Cicil War. Only €7 for this, and worth every penny if you’re a fan of Yeats. (How can you not be?) Yeats wrote some of his most important poems here.

I sat through the audio-visual presentation made by the tourism board, by the look of it sometime back in the 70s, and then went up to see the inside of the tower itself. They even have a stare’s nest in one of the windows, with birds living in it. (No honeybees, though. You can’t have everything.)

I talked for a while to the volunteer who was running the place, an older (than me) woman named Toni. I asked where she was from, since her accent was clearly not local. She said she was from Florida, that she had worked for the Miami Herald, and told me how she came to be there. About Yeats, she said she couldn’t imagine what George (his wife) must have thought about being brought there, close as they were to Lady Gregory’s place at Coole. I said she likely had confidence he was no more attractive to Augusta as a married man thane had been when single.

After leaving Yeats’s tower it was time to come back here to rest up before another long day tomorrow. I’ll be sad to leave Galway behind, and David and Lin have been marvellous hosts. But tomorrow I’m heading west to Connemara, and then north to Sligo and Donegal. I’ll visit Ben Bulben, and Yeats’s grave. I’m hoping my luck with the weather holds, but I’ll deal with things as they come. There isn’t another way.

One Slip

It’s all about choices, someone will say.
As if there were a way to know ahead
Of time that I was putting my foot wrong.
It was a hot day, the first taste of summer
Weather after weeks of rain, and we went
Down to walk along the riverside. I don’t
Recall why I turned my back to the water,
Only the feeling of the bank giving way
Beneath my foot. I tried to save it, but
That only made things worse. At first I thought,
Well, this will be something we laugh about
Later, but the water was so fast, so cold,
And I needed to inhale but couldn’t quite
Get my head above water, couldn’t see
The hands reaching out too late to save me.

 

©  Mark Milner, 2018

Tabula Rasa

1
Arvo Pärt at 36,000 ft.
The voices of the strings weave
Through the air, rise and fall, play
Against each other.

Outside, the clouds
Mingle and separate, fall away
Beneath us, behind us.

Just as time
And music fade
Into silence.

2
To live without expectation,
The future as a blank slate,
To engage with what comes
As it comes
In its own time.

Trying to imagine that.
Knowing that we expect the future
To resemble the past.

The batter looking for a fastball
Doesn’t recognize the change up, and swings through it, surprised.

3
The point where the patterns intersect,
The point where the patterns disperse,
Here the mind is free to play.

Fullness and emptiness have the same rules.

Your plans cannot escape these rules, or contain them.
This is the first rule.

It doesn’t matter that you don’t acknowledge the rules.
This is the second rule.

4
I never expect the face in the mirror.
Recognize it, of course. Know it’s mine.
But it surprises me every time
Like a note played off key
Or an off-speed pitch.

5
The difference between knowledge and expectation:
We all know we will die. And yet death arrives unexpected.

The number of times I watched my father’s head
Move through shades of red and purple
As he coughed at the dinner table, then lit a cigarette.

And yet it was years later, and something else entirely.
I watched him slip quietly into Silentium, all the machines switched off.
I was utterly unprepared.

 

©  Mark Milner, 2017