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

his beautiful head

day 2For the last two days, I’ve been looking at photographs of my new grandson. In a week or so, John and I will travel to Ottawa to meet him, to hold him, to congratulate his parents. I think of how my own grandparents must’ve longed for such immediate gratification — I do have some photographs sent by my mother to my father’s parents (they were among the small leavings I took from my parents’ home after their deaths) and there are notes on the back to provide context: age of the children, the location of the photographs. Yesterday Forrest and Manon sent several images taken in the hospital and in response to my observation that Arthur’s hair seems dark, another photograph arrived to show the top of his beautiful head:

arthur's hairForrest’s hair was the colour of a peach when he was born. Soft faint strawberry-blond. And there wasn’t much of it. (Still isn’t! Though it’s more russety now…) So how fascinating that this little baby has what looks like red hair too! When Forrest was born, we tried to think of where the red hair came from. My father remembered one red-haired sister and also several sisters with blue eyes. They were half-sisters, sharing a mother — his mother. No one in my immediate family had red hair or blue eyes. In John’s family, his father had fair hair and blue eyes, as did his sister. (I say “did” for his sister because her hair darkened over the years, though her eyes are still blue!)

I tried to puzzle through the mysteries of genetics in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, and re-reading it, I see that I was already wondering about this baby as soon as I knew he was in process! I was musing about what had happened with the peas I’d saved for three years from seed originally purchased at the Mendel Museum in Brno. The seeds were wrinkled and they produced strong vines with white blooms. For two years the peas were wrinkled and then, last spring, this was what I found in the dried pods I’d saved for planting in 2015:


from “Euclid’s Orchard”: In four generations, the Mendel peas have taken different directions, perhaps because of their proximity to the Mammoth Melting Sugars or maybe because mysterious calculations under their own particular skins. I’ve planted them and await their appearance with all the anticipation of awaiting the birth of a child. Which we are also anticipating, in October. A second grandchild; the first being Kelly Samra, born on July 17, 2014, to her mathematician father, Brendan, and her physicist mother, Cristen. She is beautiful, with clear pink skin, blue eyes, and not enough hair to determine its colour. She is lanky like her mother and father—and shares her mother’s blue eyes, which are also her uncle and aunt’s blue eyes from our side of the family, and from her great-grandfather Ben Pass. And who will the new baby be? She or he has a red-haired father, with blue eyes—my older son—and a dark-haired dark-eyed mother. The maternal grandparents have lived for many generations on either side of the Ottawa River, in Quebec and Ontario, and there is an Algonquin great-great-grandmother in the not so distant past.


in place, over time

Canada is a huge country. When I was a child, my family drove across it, from Victoria to Halifax, and then back again two years later. In every province we travelled through, I lost my heart to small towns, imagining living there, wondering why we had to always live in the same places: Victoria, Matsqui, Halifax. What about Golden? Or Carberry? Or Annapolis Royal? When we lived on the west coast, we drove to Edmonton many summers to visit my father’s mother. While his father was alive, we visited both grandparents, but my grandfather died when I was two or three so I don’t remember much about those trips. I do remember sleeping in a small house with a metal roof behind the slightly larger house where my grandparents lived in Beverly, not far from the North Saskatchewan River. I remember hail on that roof and running with my brothers to the safety of the larger house where our parents were visiting with our grandparents and assorted aunts and uncles. I remember the heat of those summers and the great body of the river as it made its way from its home glacier in the Rockies to Saskatchewan.

And now my son Brendan lives in Edmonton with his wife Cristen and their daughter Kelly. Cristen’s father grew up in Edmonton so there are family connections on both sides. It’s not why they chose Edmonton — their decision had more to do with Brendan’s work (he’s a mathematician and he teaches at the University of Alberta) — but there’s something about the way places draw us, I think.  Over time they draw us. I hadn’t thought about Edmonton in years until my son moved there, bought a house with his wife, and began a family. Their family is already rooted, in a way. They are already familiar with winter, for example, and the sound of magpies. Their street is thick with elm leaves right now and Kelly will know the pleasures of walking through dry leaves in October before the snow comes.

In 1946, my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. Here’s the bill of sale:

bill of saleI know, it’s hard to read. But for 200 dollars in February, 1946, my grandfather John Kishkan bought a house located on the Humberstone Farm with the understanding that the house would be moved on or before July 1st. My grandfather paid in cash. I think this was the little house we slept in. In the papers I found after my father’s death in 2009, there was a box of receipts and so forth for house-building materials, all dated late 1946 and 1947. I think my grandparents must’ve lived in the little house moved from the Humberstone Farm to their lot on 111th Avenue in Beverly and then they built a larger house on the same lot. Nothing grand. This is the house (photo taken by my auntie Ann’s great-granddaughter a few years ago):

their houseI am wondering about the stories contained in these papers and this house. My grandparents moved from Drumheller where they had a small farm (I believe it was land taken out by my grandmother’s first husband Josef Yopek in 1912) to Beverly. Did they sell the farm? Did one of my grandmother’s grown children keep it? (She had 8 children from her first marriage and they were mostly adults by the time my father was born in 1926. My father lived with one of the grown sisters in Edmonton for a time and perhaps as my grandparents aged, it was felt that they too should come to be closer to their family. Although the children were not biologically related to my grandfather and he certainly didn’t adopt them, I note that they are listed as his daughters and sons in his obituary.)

And I wonder why my grandfather bought a house from Jacob Prins. There’s so much I don’t know about my grandfather’s early life but when I read about the Humberstone Farm, which Jacob Prins bought sometime after 1927, I discover that it was not only a farm but also a coal mining operation. The Humberstone family bought a 1/2 section of River Lot 42, east of 34th Street and south of 118th Avenue, nestled in a broad bend of the North Saskatchewan River. The farm took up part of the land and as well as a coal mine, the Humberstones also ran a boarding house for coal miners. My grandfather’s history before he met my grandmother is sketchy. I know he was a miner, I know he worked in Kananaskis and Phoenix, B.C. and Franklin Furnace, New Jersey. But was there also an association with the Humberstone Coal Company?

So many questions — and no real possibility of answers. Anyone I could ask is now dead.

my grandparents

We walked a little through the river valley this past weekend while we were in Edmonton and I thought how beautiful the landscape was with the golden aspens and the mountain ashes laden with clusters of red berries and the noisy magpies gliding in and out of the trees. It’s not my place but I have ties to it, over time, and those ties are strengthening all the time. I was a child over on the other bank of the river, walking with my mother in the dust of summer, and now I watch another young family take pleasure in the seasons.

a family

A little Seferis to put things in perspective:

If pain is human we are not human beings merely to suffer pain;
that’s why I think so much these days about the great river,
this meaning that moves forward among herbs and greenery
and beasts that graze and drink, men who sow and harvest,
great tombs even and small habitations of the dead.