who knew they were waiting…?

Last night we arrived home from Ottawa — a long day, with a stop in Winnipeg, and then the Canada Line from the airport to downtown, followed by the Horseshoe Bay Express bus to the ferry (which mercifully was late so we were able to catch one around 7:45 rather than having to wait for the last one at 9:15. Our car was in the lot on the Langdale side and we got in, put on some sweet jazz, and drove the dark highway home, tumbling into bed around 11, which was more like 2 a.m., body(Ottawa)-time. It was wonderful to spend time with our new grandson and his parents. They were very good to us and picked us up from airports, train-stations (we went to Toronto for a few days), cooked lovely dinners for us, and generally made room in their lives and household for us. And Forrest even let me use his computer because, wouldn’t you know, I found myself heady with ideas for my current work-in-progress. I had my little tablet with me but I can’t “write” on it. Lord knows others could and perhaps I’m just too much the diva but somehow my thinking goes as cramped as my fingers when faced with that tiny screen. Most of what I was doing was working with existing pieces which I am trying to “knit” together and so although I had a paper copy of one of the essays which I scribbled on and over and through on the flight from Vancouver to Ottawa last week, I couldn’t really “see” the changes until I’d entered them on the typed file. Everyone has a different way of working on drafts. Some people write them long-hand, some type every word, some keep careful notebooks. My own process is a mixture of these, a funny patchwork of idle scribbles on whatever paper is handy, then typing, then making revisions on paper copy, then — well, you get the idea. Or maybe not. But I’m convinced there’s no single template for writers to use, no manual to follow, or system to incorporate into your day. The only constant is that writers write. They find a way to do it. And sometimes they’re writing even when they’re not. Sometimes they wander through the world accumulating, absorbing, and when the time is right (though it will often not be convenient), they use the materials to make something of their own.

I read an interview with the American writer Mary Ruefle (http://www.divedapper.com/interview/mary-ruefle/) this morning and how sane she is!

Whichever way it takes, the lesson in all of this is patience. For instance, the story of my not being able to read for three years and then encountering a book of poems on a sale table leading me back into reading is typical for young writers who can neither read nor write.     Not being able to read or write can coincide, or they can be separate. I do know in the period I was unable to read, I was still able to write. But, you know, it’s all patience. It’s learning that there are cycles and you have to go through them and it has to do with faith. Patience has to do with the faith that you will go back to reading, or if you have some kind of writer’s block that you’ll go back to writing. I never myself suffered from writer’s block for more than an inconsequential amount of time, but it’s all patience and faith. Wasting time has to do with the patience and faith of knowing that it’s essential. Wasting time—I write when I waste time. But there are no rules. Sometimes we write when we’re at our busiest and think we have no time.

I’ve just had nearly two hours at my desk, reading the interview, fiddling with some images central to this essay, and actually writing a few paragraphs which feel like they’ve come out of thin air. Who knew they were there. waiting? Not me. But this morning, wrapped in the old familiar scent of woodsmoke, a cup of very dark strong coffee beside me, I found what I was looking for, hoping for. Sometimes I hold the words in my hand like my grandson’s tiny fingers, amazed at them, in thrall to them. I love what Mary Ruefle has to say about the waiting. And also the wonder: “You’re there to engage your own sense of wonder and curiosity. There is no substitute for wonder and curiosity in a life. It’ll take you a long way.”


Sedna on Elgin Street

Tomorrow we’re flying home, away fron our new grandson and his parents; we won’t see them again until January. Today we went to an exhibit at the Karsh-Masson Gallery, an installation by Jason Paradis, which was like being in in the middle of starlight, the long beams of ethereal light anchored to rocks in the centre of the gallery. Then we walked along the canal, past an Inuit woman with 4 drawings spread out for sale under a shop awning on Elgin Street, anchored to the pavement with small stones. I looked. I walked past. When we got to the car, I said maybe I needed to go back. Forrest came with me. How much do you think the drawings will cost, i asked him, new to the world of street art. He thought about 20 dollars. Two of the drawings — pencil crayon, I think, on fine Arches paper — were particularly beautiful. One was a single loon, elegant and stippled. And the other? It’s Sedna, I said. And the woman looked into my eyes and said, Yes, Sedna.

Many songs are sung to this powerful goddess and in new seasons, pieces of the liver of the first-killed sea mammal are returned to the waters, imploring Sedna to release her bounty to the hunters so that they might feed their families. The angakok may visit Sedna in a trance, where he hears of the taboos and disrespect inflicted on her by the people, and soothes her by combing her hair with a bone comb.Many songs are sung to this powerful goddess and in new seasons, pieces of the liver of the first-killed sea mammal are returned to the waters, imploring Sedna to release her bounty to the hunters so that they might feed their families. The angakok may visit Sedna in a trance, where he hears of the taboos and disrespect inflicted on her by the people, and soothes her by combing her hair with a bone comb. (from The Canadian Encyclopedia)

I paid the woman 60 dollars and thanked her. I am so grateful to have seen her work, signed N. Mark, Iqaluit, Nunavut, and her name in syllabics.


On Salt Spring Island…

When John and I first met in 1979, I moved to his house in North Vancouver. I was 24, beginning my life as a writer, and at first I felt a little bereft. In Victoria, the city I’d left, there was a lively literary culture and if I wasn’t exactly at the centre of it, I did attend readings (John and I met at one of those, a grand benefit for bill bisset at Open Space), and I belonged to a small writing group.

Not long after i’d moved to North Vancouver, we went to something — I forget what, exactly — at the Literary Storefront on Cordova Street, a wonderful centre or nexus for readings, workshops, launches, parties, and any other kind of literary activity imaginable. I wonder if i’m remembering correctly when I recall hearing Stephen Spender there? Anyway, the Literary Storefront was founded by Mona Fertig and in the way circles complete themselves, she is now my publisher. And on November 7th, I will be launching my new novella on Salt Spring Island, home of Mona’s Mother Tongue Publishing, alongside Trevor Carolan, who has just published a history of the Literary Storefront. I think it will be a fabulous evening! If you’re on Salt Spring, come help us celebrate!


then and now

When I visited the excavated site at Pompeii in 1975, I remember feeling such a sense of distance. There were olive trees and cypress and the long cobbled roads of (and to) the past. You could join a group walking up Mt Vesuvius — I didn’t — and it wasn’t ’til several years later that I read this description of the mountain and its power by Pliny the Younger who wrote to a friend after the eruption in 79 A.D. “…  its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.” The younger Pliny’s uncle died of fumes and was described by his nephew looking as though asleep. Today we spent the afternoon at the Pompeii exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum and I thought that the plaster casts of those who died under ash and molten lava looked serene, too.


It was so moving to see them and to understand something of their lives before everything ended. Their beautiful mosaics, the dishes of carbonized figs and olives, cooking utensils so nearly the same as ours (a skillet, some pastry molds, a glass dish very like the one we use for trifle at Christmas). Tools — a builder’s square and clamps, calipers. Maybe not the glirarium, used to rear and fatten dormice for the table:


But I think of the dogs we’ve loved and cared for and I loved this mosaic:


and I was sad to see the subject of the mosaic after it had suffered the same fate as its family:


In 1975, I thought how far away was the past and its cataclysms, and on a different continent too; but today it seemed so possible, as our global climates shift and change. Pliny again: “Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.” The cobbled roads have survived and we can walk them, figuratively or actually, and imagine that we feel the first light ash settling on our shoulders.

beautiful world

I spent the afternoon in the vegetable garden, mostly finishing up a new garlic bed. The old one was too small and the wooden frame had pretty much rotted away. (It was originally built as a sandbox, 8×8, at least 27 years ago, a testament to both the long-lasting qualities of cedar boards and the way something can be repurposed as one’s life changes…) John built a new one in more or less the same area but taking in extra space, easing under a huge sage plant and against the deer fence and out into what was a wide path under an apple tree.. With my new-found math vocabulary, I’m calling its shape an isoscoles trapezoid but I think that’s generous. (I don’t think the non-parallel sides are exactly congruent.) Mostly it’s just four boards (2x8s, formerly the joists and a header for the old deck which was rebuilt several years ago). It gives me — us — about a third again more space for garlic. Our garlic is sensational but there’s never quite enough.

The sun was warm and the ravens were klooking somewhere just to the south of our house. A young man brought a load of sweet-smelling fir logs to supplement what we’ve been able to bring in ourselves this year. I thought what an amazingly beautiful world it is. I thought of Eliza Gilkyson’s song —

beautiful world beautiful world beautiful world…
beautiful trees breathing the air alive
beautiful leaves trembling and dry
beautiful bees moving from flower to hive
beautiful seas mirroring sky
beautiful sky

— and could almost hear her singing it as I dug up the bed and spread more soil and rotting straw around the new edges. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiosnMtFIgU)

Then I walked over for the mail and our box was full of election brochures. I’ve already voted and so it’s a bit late to try to convince me but honestly I will be very glad when this election is over. The Conservatives in particular are practising the ugliest kind of gutter politics imaginable. Not just the niqab issue. Not just the fear-mongering that somehow terrorists are waiting in every dark alley. But the fictions directed at those who need to understand what Canada is truly about. For instance: Chinese language ads directed at new Chinese immigrants, telling them that the Liberals want to open brothels in neighbourhoods (their neighbourhoods) and sell marijuana to children from local grocery stores. It’s almost funny, except it isn’t. Remember the rhetoric of the Nazi Party? Is this so different? Have a look at what other countries are saying about this government’s racist attitudes and remember the days when we had true statesmen with  truly democratic and humane principles: http://www.pressprogress.cacongratulations_canada_now_the_world_is_talking_about_your_prime_ministers_racist_rhetoric

I’ll be in Ottawa on the 19th, spending time with my new grandson and his parents. They live in the riding where Emilie Taman is running for the NDP. I heard Emilie’s mother Louise Arbour on the radio a week or two ago, talking about the Conservative disdain for Canadian judges and our justice system. Louise Arbour is a national treasure. She’s more than that; she’s an international treasure. I remember her work as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and also as Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She is about as intelligent and decent as a human being can be. Her daughter, a former federal crown prosecutor, seems to be cut from the same fine cloth. I’d love to celebrate her victory in Ottawa next week. But most of all I’d love to celebrate a victory for all of us, including this beautiful little boy who went hiking with his parents on Thanksgiving Monday!

manon and arthur

baby's first hike

say their names

late anemones

A Thanksgiving dinner for two: small prime-rib roast with mushroom gravy (dried morels reconstituted in port, with chanterelles picked on today’s walk); garden potatoes (those underground nests discovered while digging over the finished beds, red-skinned French fingerlings, yellow-fleshed, veined in pink); some of the summer’s horseradish root softened with yoghurt and mayonnaise; salad (kale, late arugula, Chinese greens, picked by John while I made the gravy); and pears baked with coconut sugar and butter, then finished with cream. To drink? A beautiful jammy Desert Hills 2008 Malbec, in the Waterford goblets. Oh, so much to be thankful for. A home, a garden, a family. My work, which has me waking early to bury myself in its strange atmosphere, mysterious and maybe not exactly what the world wants to read, but mine. Mine. The turning of the maples — still green last week but now a deep Naples yellow and ochre. As we ate and talked, John said, raising his glass, “We should say their names.” And we did. Forrest, Manon, and Arthur. Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly. Angelica and Sahand. In candlelight, they were almost present at the old pine table. And certainly present in our thoughts. When they were here in August (though baby Arthur was still as yet unborn), I woke every morning, thinking, “Those I love best on earth are under our roof!” So a last sip of wine and more thanks — for the accumulation of years and for those still to come.

last sip