the earth turning to darkness

When I woke this morning, I wondered why my bedroom was so bright — at just after six a.m. Snow! Oh, the capricious weather. Earlier in the week, we drove home from dinner with friends in mild rain, frogs leaping out of our headlights. But overnight it snowed and this morning I went outside to see the world made mysterious. I could hear the high sound of birds — golden-crowned kinglets, I think, and probably the same little cloud I saw yesterday in the firs by the deck — and I thought of owls, the one which flew low over our car the other night, in rain, but now probably waking for good hunting.

P1100958And now, later, I also think of John Haines, the Alaska poet (1924-2011) who wrote as convincingly of winter as anyone dead or alive. Whose memoir, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Northern Wilderness I bought as soon as it was published in 1989 and loved every word. Who wrote about owls —

at dusk from the island in the river, and it’s not too cold, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him. We will not speak, but hooded against the frost soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes. And then we’ll sit in the shadowy spruce and pick the bones of careless mice, while the long moon drifts toward Asia and the river mutters in its icy bed. And when the morning climbs the limbs we’ll part without a sound, fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.

The light has shifted from the brilliance and mystery of this morning to something cold and brittle. And cold! Just  now I put on boots and went out to see the sun beginning to slide behind small hill between us and Georgia Strait; it glowed as pink and gold as new fire. Late dawn, early sunset: we are sliding towards the solstice and today it feels very near.

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home is where the ladder is

Nearly two weeks away, mostly in Ottawa visiting my son Forrest and his wife Manon, with sidetrips to Montreal and Quebec City. There was the added pleasure of the arrival of my son Brendan, his wife Cristen, and their baby Kelly for two nights towards the end of our visit. So time under another roof, though a familiar one, with family new and old. Not that Forrest and Brendan are old, exactly, but they were once my babies. And the women they’ve brought into our family are very dear to me. As for Kelly, well, it’s extraordinary how a grandchild takes you back into the rich history of your own young motherhood.

In Ottawa I bought David Malouf’s memoir, 12 Edmondstone Street. It’s about houses and how they shaped him — as a child, a man, a writer. And it’s so beautifully written — I confess he has long been a favourite of mine and I wonder why it’s taken me so long to find his memoir, published in 1985? His obsessions have led me in similar directions — the notions of memory and houses and war and our pursuit (as in the exquisite novella, An Imaginary Life) of alliances with the natural world and those who might be able to teach us what it means to be other.

A limit. A wall we cannot go through. Which is in some ways where we began. Except that memory, in leading us back, has turned us about. It has drawn us through room after room towards a past body, an experience of the world that cannot be entered, only to confront us with a future body that can. Memory is deeper than we are and has longer views. When it pricked and set us on, it was the future it had in mind, and the door our fingertips were seeking was not there because we were looking in the wrong place; it was not that door we were meant to go through.

In Ottawa, in the company of baby Kelly, I kept remembering the infancy of my sons. They were born before and during the building of the house I live in now. Their childhoods took place here. Every wall has a faded handprint, every window holds the image of a child looking out in morning and in darkness. Our house was made to contain our family and even now I balk at any kind of renovation. John asked recently if I thought it was time for a new kitchen. The cupboards, built of yellow cedar, are a little battered. We don’t have a dishwasher. The dining area is narrow, because of the necessity of a bearing wall to take the weight of a changing roofline. Yet the long pine table has held every kind of meal, from first birthdays to Christmas dinners to food in celebration of graduations, engagements, and weddings. And that interior bearing wall is punctuated by three leaded windows, given us by someone undergoing a renovation in their own home. When I wake in other houses, I always have to reorient myself — where is the south-facing window where the treefrogs peek in? The west ones which receive the brunt of winter winds? And when I set a table in another dining area, I find myself looking for the window by our own, the one we sit by in February and watch the silver moon in the firs.

ladder in the dining areaIt’s good to be home now. I was able to put the vegetable garden to bed before we left but there’s still a lot to do outside. And inside, of course.

David Malouf observes, “At a certain point, you begin to see what the connections are between things, and you begin to know what space it is you are exploring.” You do, yes, and you begin to anticipate the arrival of its ghosts.

my boys

 

the gods in winter air

A day of museums in Quebec City. Everything was interesting but the best was the last: the Treasures from the Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin at the Musee de la Civilisation. It was so intelligently presented — the pantheon of Greek gods, larger than life, against a background of deep blue sky and cloud, as if they’d come to earth for a moment, caught in a world utterly not their own. Outside, the snow fell softly on streets where we could imagine purposeful life a century or two earlier, stone and cobbles and cold wind off the St. Lawrence.

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I think I loved best the votives, the small offerings (or maybe especially the small ones) to be left in sanctuaries, central places for worshipping gods and lesser divinities. From Olympia, the most glorious horses, bulls, and an elegant clay pig. Who loved that pig enough to model it in clay and offer it to the gods?

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And the tiny beautiful bronze shepherd with a ram slung casually under his arm?

Hermes Kriophoros ram

And look at his heels! It’s Hermes, at work among the sheep and carrying a wish to a sanctuary more than 2500 years ago.

small dishes of heavenly food

Dinner last night at Pintxo, small dishes of heavenly food in the Spanish or Basque style. Octopus stuffed with crab-meat, tiny Atlantic oysters with a surf of pureed celeriac, beef carpaccio with Manchego cheese, a lovely sardine marinated in something bright, and so on. A candlelit room, perfect service.

pintxo
ours was the little table on the right, by the window…

 

We walked back in the cold night to our warm bed at the Gingerbread Manor. And I missed having a book to read at bedtime. I packed the New Yorker food issue and it’s great but I’m thinking longingly of Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country waiting on the bedside table at Forrest and Manon’s house in Ottawa. Somehow I never read this during my long infatuation with Stegner (I count Wolf Willow among my all-time favourite books) and I began it the other day with such pleasure. Years ago our family lived in Utah for a winter when John was a visiting poet at Brigham Young University. It was our first encounter with Mormon culture and I was fascinated by both the sense of community we found there but also the differences between us and them. We drank wine, we drank coffee (still do!), we didn’t believe in God (still don’t!), and the notion of top-down authority (usually male) didn’t sit well with me (still doesn’t). But the kindness and generosity of the people we lived amongst was wonderful and I loved their sense of the importance of family stories to help anchor an individual within the community.

I always have a big pile of books at hand and this morning I’m feeling a little bereft. I’ve read Adam Gopnik’s account of the battle between the cronut and the pretzel croissant (only in New York!) and Dana Goodyear’s article about elite meat and I want something more substantial — a novel or more Stegner. At home I recently read Richard Flanagan’s brilliant The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Fred Stenson’s Who by Fire which changes forever the way I’ll think about oil and farming. And Olivia Laing’s harrowing analysis of writers and their relationship to alcohol, The Trip to Echo Spring. (I loved John Berryman’s Dream Songs as a young writer and the account of his final years was so sad.)

In a little while we’ll pull our suitcases through Montreal’s snowy streets to the train station. We’re heading to Quebec City for a few days before returning to Ottawa on Friday where Brendan, Cristen, and baby Kelly will join us all for the weekend. And I can finish Mormon Country, a rich and evocative read…

opera grotesque

Last night, a production of Hamlet, as told by the Tiger Lillies, at the Place des Arts here in Montreal. I’ve read reviews of other productions and I’m still trying to figure out what I think. In many ways, an astonishing and original piece of theatre. It was a very physical and athletic play,filled with flight and swimming (and drowning) in air, feats of tremendous and beautiful body work. The voice of Martyn Jacques, the Tiger Lillies front-man, filled the theatre, as he sang to both the actors and the audience. What troubled me: the way the syntax of the songs made them muddy sometimes, in service to the expected rhymes rather than dramatic effect. And let’s face it — language doesn’t get more perfect than Shakespeare’s. So commentary on the play needs to be pretty amazing to work. And I didn’t think this production always worked. But when it did — the harrowing Desolation Song as Ophelia dies — it was entirely memorable. I’m glad we went. And we talked about it the entire walk back to the Gingerbread Manor B&B where we are staying for a couple of nights (recommended by Forrest and Manon) and where I can smell breakfast as I write.

hamlet

Yesterday we arrived to snow but not romantic fluffy snow. It was wet and slushy and we got very cold. Luckily we found Juliette & Chocolat where we drank little jugs of extraordinary hot chocolate and shared a fabulous brownie. This morning there’s a blue sky and high pink cloud. So onward! And upward!

bright lights

Last night, a rock concert! Bright lights, fabulous music — the Jim Cuddy Band, Kathleen Edwards…We (almost) danced in the aisles. Seriously, it was wonderful, a free concert at the TD Ottawa Civic Arena sponsored by CUPE 503, I loved hearing Kathleen Edwards sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (that old chestnut) so sweetly, with her ex-husband Colin Cripps. Loved Donovan Woods. And this moment, Kathleen singing “Married Again” with Jim Cuddy:

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So it’s been a busy few days, Forrest and Manon so welcoming and generous. A breakfast at Rideau Hall on Friday morning where the GG served the eggs, dinner that evening at a new Argentine restaurant where there was an unexpected poetry reading (in Spanish!). A hike in Gatineau Park yesterday afternoon, dim sum, the concert, and take-out tacos (lamb, tongue, beef, pork, all succulent) from El Camino as a midnight snack.

And now it’s snowing. Pancakes are in the works, tiny cups of espresso being brewed, and the world is a lovely place.

green poplar

A few snow flakes falling in Ottawa but I`ve come from the National Gallery with a new sense of my own love of spring. A painting, William Kurelek`s beautiful Green Sunday 1962, a woman in a room, with soft green boughs around her. And the text tells us that the work commemorates Zeleni Sviala, the first Sunday in May when poplar branches would be placed in all 4 corners of a living room to welcome spring after a long hard winter. The woman is wearing the costume of Kurelek`s ancestral Bukovina (also my ancestral Bukovina, on my father`s father`s side). Somehow I recognize the moment, the bringing in of green boughs, a man playing music to one side, and a calendar high on one wall to keep the days in their order. And I know the word, too — zeleni, so close to Czech zelene, the name of one my favourite Moravian wines.

I wonder more each year about family, where we come from — and why, how… And then a painting offers a moment of deep recognition.

poplar

matsutake

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.

— from “The Mushroom” by Robert Bly

This has been a rich season for mushrooms. Chanterelles, shaggy manes, a gift of dried porcini from my friend Anik who spent the summer in Dawson City, and the coveted matsutake, or pine mushroom. The week before last, we found about 20 of them on our walk, in a place where we usually find a handful. Another walk yielded more. And today, unexpected treaure on the Sakinaw loop walk. Tonight we’re having pizza — dough for the crust is rising by the woodstove and in a few minutes I’ll pick some kale. Delicious fresh mozzarella from Fairburn Farm water buffalos. Garlic from the summer’s bounty. And some proscuitto from, well, who knows. And a matsutake thinly sliced and sauteed in a little olive oil. A marriage of autumn flavours, gifts from garden and forest, before winter appears over the mountain.

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the scent of aging stone

Last night I dreamed of Venice. (Three nights ago, I dreamed my dad met the 14th Dalai Lama in a campsite in the Nicola Valley but that’s another story.) In the Venice dream, we were crossing a canal via a small stone and brick bridge. It seemed very potent — the green water, the grey light, the scent of aging stone. I often have very vivid dreams and I think of them as a kind of story-telling, a continuation of the narratives that shape how I live. But last night’s dream had something to tell me. It felt like that. I did a little dream research this morning to find out what bridges and water mean. One source tells me this: Bridges represent a transitional period in your life where you will be moving on to a new stage. If the bridge is over water, then it suggests that your transition will be an emotional one.

Well, the bridge was one we used regularly during the two weeks we spent in Venice in November, 2009. We walked for hours every day, stopping occasionally for small cups of espresso or glasses of prosecco (which cost the same as the coffee and which was just as restorative).

from the dreamI loved everything about those two weeks, which had begun as one, with the idea that we’d travel a little more through that part of Italy before returning to Paris where we’d begun that particular trip and where we’d end it. But after the first week, we decided we simply didn’t want to leave. Couldn’t leave. The production of La Traviata we saw, not in La Scala, but an ancient scuola. The wine bar we went to for simple suppers of pumpkin ravioli and salads of bitter greens. Dim churches filled with sad-eyed Madonnas and the odour of candlewax. The patron of our small pensione and his parrot Piero — Piero quickly learned how to imitate John’s laugh and we’d hear him chuckling in the reception area after we’d gone up to our room, an eerie echo.

Today it’s raining too hard to do any of the garden work that I’ve put off — putting things in the cold-frame and the sunroom, planting the last of the spring bulbs, mulching the garlic bed with bigleaf maple leaves. The house smells of roasted butternut squash from the garden and apples from Spences Bridge, ready for soup. I’m listening to Emmylou Harris singing “Hickory Wind” and thinking about those weeks in Venice. A dream’s symbolism can be complex, perhaps, or maybe it can also be a visual longing. If I close my eyes, I can hear Piero calling Ciao as we walked out for the day and the sound of our feet on the little bridge that took us into the beauty of La Serenissima.