“tree frogs are ignoring their ladders”

We’re promised a hot dry summer here on the west coast of British Columbia and I believe it. Almost no rain for the whole month of May, plants three weeks ahead of themselves, the tomato vines laden with blossom. I think of W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic poem, “Barometer Reading”, with its beautiful opening lines:

Nothing can be inferred

from the forecasts

Tree frogs

are ignoring their ladders…

Here’s yesterday’s tree frog, climbing the railings to settle among the honeysuckle:

P1120003And a further prediction of the hot summer to come — an abundance of the northern alligator lizards, basking on rocks, scuttling from woodshed to cool border, and even mating on top of the old kindling pile (it lasted hours!):

more than friends

“you have not forgotten about us”

This weekend I’m working on last-minute tweaks of my novella Patrin. This is the last chance I’ll have to make sure everything is in order before the file goes to the copyeditor next week, followed by the book designer in early June. (Patrin will be published by Mother Tongue Publishing in September.) Mostly when I edit, I am looking at sentence structure, the flow of the narrative from one section to another — and because I’ve written this book as a series of “stanzas” rather than chapters, and because the schema is not consecutive or linear, I want to make sure that the transitions are smooth, that the reader moves from one to the next with a sense of inevitablity rather than confusion.

This morning I was reading for another reason: I wanted to ensure that a few thematic elements were highlighted at important moments in the narrative and then gracefully stepped into the background when they’d had their moment. They appear again and again, like a refrain, but I don’t want them to be too garrulous or repetitive, like the dinner guest who keeps telling the same story in the same old way.

I’d forgotten (in the way one does when writing “fiction”) how much of my own life and habits appear in this book. It’s not my story, exactly. Patrin Szkandery is a little older than I am. And her background is not mine. But we went to the same parties in Victoria in the mid-1970s. She worked in the bookstore I loved to visit for its faded oriental carpets and wonderful selection of antiquarian books. Our travels echoed one another’s, though she fell in love with a musician in Greece and my love was a fisherman/taverna owner.

But we share one important thing — which is the reason I began this book in the first place. We both long to know more about our family history in Central Europe in the early years of the 20th century. The more I tried to find traces of my paternal grandmother’s family, the more disappointed I became. And the more attention I paid to other histories that were almost as shadowy. When the writing I was doing became more and more fragmentary, when the gaps became wider and more unfathomable, Patrin came to me as a gift. Her quest was similar to my own but I could allow her to discover things that were not mine to find. I gave her my great-grandmother’s family name as a surname so the exchange was not entirely one-sided.

If I was twenty years younger, or thirty, I wonder if I would have the same difficulties finding the quotidian details of my family’s history? Later in the 20th century, people took more photographs, their names appear in more records (even the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother and her five children as they sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 got salient details wrong), bureaucracies won’t leave them alone, and by the early 21st c. people began to consciously dedicate themselves to their own personal archive by zealously recording every thought and adventure on social media.

I’m grateful to have access to these details, though I’m reluctant to participate much myself. The other day in Ottawa, my daughter-in-law Cristen and I went shopping for a dress for Kelly to wear to a wedding in Montreal. I bought the dearest little dress the colours of a Monet garden and Cristen bought a tiny cardigan (or shrug) to go with it. And this morning, because I’m not on Facebook where I know there are lots of images for a distant grandmother to pour over (if she could just make herself sign up), Cristen very sweetly sent me some photographs of Kelly in her finery.

kelly in her dressI wonder if mine will be the last generation to try so hard to find so little about family history? Or if subsequent generations will simply feel too burdened by the heavy load of information? My grandmother kept a strange assortment of things — every receipt for building materials used to build a house in Beverly, Alberta; mass cards; the few letters my father wrote to her as a young sailor in the 1940s; photographs of my brothers and me sent by my mum during the years of our childhoods. But there are only one or two pieces of correpondence from her former home in Moravia. My friend Lenka translated one letter for me, sent to my grandmother from someone who is obviously her godchild.

Dear godmother, thanks God for your letter since you have not forgotten about us and after all you wrote us. We were very much looking forward to your letter and we have read it several times and we learned about your life and success. We thank God that you have your own dwelling and a piece of field, so you are luckier than us as we do not have anything, neither dwelling nor own piece of field, not even work. Dear godmother, yet we do have something – faith and trust in God that He has not left us yet and we hope that He never will as long as He wants us to be in this world.

Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe.

The letter was sent from the village of Boconowice, near Jablunkov, which is not far from the Polish border and not far from Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born and raised. (I believe the village is also on the Lomna River, the namesake of my grandmother’s village.) I wonder if the godchild was the child of a brother, sister, or cousin of my grandmother? Sometimes mysteries simply remain unsolved and sometimes you try to imagine an alternate history, an invented story to stand in for the silence of the past. As I read Patrin this morning, I realized that’s what I’ve done. And it’s no surprise that the road between Jablunkov and Horni Lomna is where Patrin finds important information about her own lost family.

in the meantime —

Away to Ottawa for a few days to help Forrest and Manon build a trellis over the deck we helped them build last May. It was our great fortune to have the company of Angelica, Brendan, Cristen, and grandbaby Kelly too during our stay. Here’s the trellis in its infancy:

beginningsAnd here it is three days later, in use:

in useThat little vine in front is a rooted cutting from the wisteria John’s mother brought from her mother’s garden in Suffolk in the 1970s. We have three huge vines from it and I am so happy to know that it will live on in other gardens, providing shade and memory, along with its spectacular blooms and fragrance. It survived its first Ottawa winter so the future looks promising.

Here’s my granddaughter helping me to weed garlic:

P1110932And here’s my beautiful daughter and daughter-in-law and granddaughter at brunch on our last morning together:

P1110920And here’s Kelly’s granddad:

P1110951And our hosts Forrest and Manon (who will have a baby of their own in October, a welcome addition to future family gatherings):

P1110924I loved seeing what a doting father my son Brendan has become, patient and loving:

P1110949In the meantime, at home, things grew:

P1110982P1110988P1110980Now I have to go tie up tomatoes which have already begun to bloom.

a small positive quality

“It is the star to every wandering bark whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.” (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)

Late in my father’s life (green-hazel eyes, light brown hair, a sturdy build, a temperament shadowed by melancholia: I have inherited the last two) he talked about reconciling numbers. I believe that he had a form of dementia and this was what he felt called to do, I suppose, though his relationships with his children suffered and could have used the same attention. He hadn’t used this term before, or at least not in my memory of him. But he’d been good at statistics and good at mental calculations. After he retired, he sat in a big armchair in one corner of his living room and taught himself celestial navigation. He had a book from Goodwill and a life-time of buried ability to learn, a mind that might have been nimble if it had been let free to roam and develop. And maybe it had always been free, maybe I never noticed.  Maybe it was freedom to sit in the big chair with columns of numbers, reconciling them – I have no idea where they came from and why he felt he needed to do this.He used a mechanical pencil, he always used one – for sums, for crosswords (“What’s a Greek letter used in math to mean a small positive quality?” I wouldn’t know so never answered. And he’d repeat the question, querulously. “A Greek letter used, oh never mind, I’ll look it up myself.”) It was the same chair where he sat fifteen years before, newly liberated from his job as a radar technician, and made himself simple tools — a cottage cheese lid cut into a circle and rigged with glass and a tiny mirror became a sextant; cardboard, string, a plastic straw, and a fishing weight became a quadrant. He had patience for this intricate work but I don’t believe he ever did anything beyond finding latitude in his back yard and filling paper with sums. Maybe on the long sea voyages that took him away from us for two or three months at a time – once, six – to the Orient, Australia, around South America, maybe he was the sailor who left his bunk and looked at stars at night and wanted to know how to find his way, though by day he worked with radar systems, repairing them, fine-tuning them so that the vessels were anything but dependent on celestial navigation. It would have made sense to have learned then, when he could perhaps have applied the knowledge to the dark skies near the Antipodes or approaching Madagascar. But he waited until the early 1980s, after retirement, to sit and work with angles, degrees. Which became, using the same notebook of graph paper and his mechanical pencil, reconciliatons. And I wish now that I’d asked him to show me what a disk of plastic fitted with mirrors could tell a person about where they were on the planet so I could imagine him now, at sea, finding horizon.


“calls back…”


My mother has been dead for nearly five years. I’ve been working on a book about family history — hers, in part; but mostly my father’s mother’s history in Horni Lomna, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood. How a small wooden house in a tiny village in the Beskydy Mountains held the girlhood of my father’s mother, spruce trees along the road in front and the slope of the mountains behind. Fruit trees in snow. The sound of churchbells. And how my mother’s mother was unknown to her — my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless — and how that first terrible loss shaped her. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize — too late — what she gave me and my brothers.

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee. (Sonnet 3, Shakespeare)

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

I wish I’d taken her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure in the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives.  She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.

I have an album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography — she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…”).



“the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door”

A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.

out the window

But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.

Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Farway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.

I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”

I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).