a cup of kindness

It’s just after three and the sun is already sliding down beyond the trees. It’s lovely, though — like old faded gold. And the hard frost has rimed every surface with silver. Our house is quiet after 12 days of festivity, beginning with John’s birthday on the 19th, Cristen’s on the 21st, and Sahand’s on the 24th, followed by Christmas itself. I have to confess that not all of us were celebrating together for the whole time as we were gifted with a Norovirus (I’m looking at you, Kelly!) and it made its merry way through the household, some of us suffering more than others but no one was immune. I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity to make meals for my loved ones, though, even knowing what I know now about sleeplessness, nausea, and aches in every joint and muscle. And yes, wine was consumed (many bottles of it); so was shortbread, white chocolate fruit cake, gingerbread, nuts, trifle, Turkish delight, any number of kinds of chocolates, and little glasses of Carolan’s Irish Cream. A turkey. A duck. Lamb made into Khoresh Gheymeh and served with Zeytoon Parvardeh (a wonderful green olive, walnut, and pomegranate salad). Flourless chocolate torte as a group birthday cake. No one went hungry.

We are spending New Years Eve alone. The two of us. We don’t feel strong enough to go out into the world and make merry. The others left, one car after another loaded down with presents, luggage, a baby clutching her dolly, and two cats in their carriers. We’re promised a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis tonight, if we stay awake long enough, and there’s still enough food for the Russian army (though maybe we don’t want to feed them at this point in human history), and one last bottle of Prosecco if we feel like toasting the turn of the year.

New Years Eve always makes me wistful. How did a year pass without me noticing, without me keeping up with the things I’d hoped to accomplish. How did the years accumulate so that we are now anticipating 2016 — oh, and I’ve only just become accustomed to beginning writing a date with 20– instead of 19–. I thought I’d have the whole house clean in readiness for the new year. My mother was raised in a Scots Presbyterian house and believed that it was bad luck to take the old year’s clutter and dust into the new. I began the day with good intentions, after waving goodbye to those driving away this morning. I disinfected the bathrooms and the two rooms where most of the sickness took place, washing three loads of bed-linens, hanging much of it out on the clothes line to freeze any residual bugs, and took out several bags of trash. But the rest of the house? Hmmm. My study is what my Yorkshire mother-in-law would have called a “tip”. Baskets of wrapping papers and bags of ribbons (all to save for next year, of course!), stacks of research materials, piles of books, some packages of seeds I meant to do something with (I can’t remember what), oh, and family photographs I’ve been meaning to scan, though looking at them is like a trick of light, whoosh, everything happening at once, time and the years burning as brightly as the fir in our woodstove, the heat lasting almost a whole night. The heat, the images so sweetly warm, the faces as beautiful as the sun is this very minute, soft and golden, filtering through the branches of the trees like memory.

So I wish you all a very happy New Year, filled with good health and sweetness, and I hope you get to hear someone sing that most beautiful of Robert Burns’s poems, set to music:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

As for me, I’ll be listening while I look at old photographs, remembering not two but three young children running in the grass at Nicola Lake summer after summer, never imagining them grown. And now gone.

at Nicola Lakebrendan at Nicola Lake


winter jasmine, for The Trackless Woods

One of my Christmas gifts this year, from my husband John: the extraordinary recording The Trackless Woods, in which Iris DeMent has set poems by Anna Akhmatova and accompanies herself so sweetly on piano with some help from Leo Kottke. I’ve loved Akhmatova since I first read her poems when I was in my early twenties. And who knew they would hold up so well in these country gospel settings? There is something so quietly profound about DeMent’s voice — I have her earlier cd, My Life (1993) but I couldn’t have anticipated this pairing. I’ve just read Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter and have some fresh insights into the horrors of the terrible years of Soviet power and somehow these poems bring it so sorrowfully to life:

I drink to this house, already destroyed,

And my whole life, too awful to tell,

To the loneliness we together enjoyed,

I drink to you as well,

To the eyes with deadly cold imbued,

To the lips that betrayed me with a lie,

To the world for being cruel and rude,

To the God who didn’t save us, or try. (“The Last Toast”, trans. Lyn Coffin)

I’m listening to this as the house whirls in its holiday colour and spirit, while food is being prepared, drinks poured, and on the table, a little sprig of winter jasmine as the year comes to an end.

winter jasmine

a Christmas card

This year’s Christmas card from our house to yours:

christmas cardNot an artist, I make a linocut every year and every year I look at it and think how I really ought to learn to use the tools and the materials properly. But the spiral is at least simple and echoes the year’s passage, the stones we saw at Almendres in Portugal last March, the stitching I am finishing up on the “Euclid’s Orchard” quilt, the logarithmic spiral (or Spira mirabilis) evident everywhere in nature, from the flight of hawks, the approach of insects towards light, the arms of galaxies, the patterns of cyclones, and the shells of molluscs. Here’s our message for the coming year, which we send with love, also a form of spiral:


the wren, the wren

As the year comes to a close and the old stories are told around fires as ancient as time, I am doing the final copy-edits of a novella, Winter Wren, which will be the first offering of FishGottaSwim Editions, a project initiated by me and my friend Anik See to showcase novellas. Watch this space for further details in the new year!

This morning I went out to fill the bird feeder and watched the chickadees dart to and fro for seed. And almost underfoot, a tiny wren also darting among the sword ferns for whatever little insects lurk there. Last night we were eating a festive dinner to celebrate John’s birthday and we had the deck lights on. Angelica noticed it first — the wren flitting from railing to herb pots to windowsill. This is their time. Do the songs and stories bring them or do they call up the songs and poems? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, has written a Christmas poem which begins this way:

The old year, a tear in the eye of time;
frost on the blackthorn, the ditches glamorous
with rime; on the inbreath of air,
the long, thoughtful pause before snow.

A star on the brow of a mule in a field
and the mule nuzzling the drystone wall
where a wren, size of a child’s lost purse,
hides in a hole. St. Stephen’s Day.

(you can read the rest of it here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/19/wren-boys-carol-ann-duffy-christmas-poem )

This morning I watched the wren as it went about its search for breakfast and when I came in to my desk, the first thing I saw were two chunks of sandstone from the beach west of Sooke where my novella takes place. They’re filled with fossils and I keep them handy as paperweights and reminders of time, how it can be compressed into stone, 25 million years’ worth, to hold in your hand as you think about birds and their stories, light and darkness, and stars.



(from Winter Wren)

It was so tiny. The wren let him approach and quick as anything he had it in the net, dropping it into a bag with a small cloth soaked in chloroform. The light in the dark eye went out.

He made the incision from cloaca to sternum through the belly. Clipped the humerus just below the shoulder joint and skin to the base of the beak. Cut through the eye membranes on the inside and through the ear canal at the skull. Severed the skull at the atlas vertebrae.

There was hardly any tongue or brain to remove, hardly any tissue at all. He dusted the skin with borax. He hoped this wasn’t the bird that hunted in the salal every day, disappearing like a mouse among the stems, plucking insects from the moss. He knew there were several in the immediate area but that one was reliable; he saw it most days and heard it when he was out cutting firewood or bringing up water from the creek. He was sure it was the source of the notes he had so carefully transcribed, listening and asking himself, was that little run e-g-e-c? Are they sixteenth notes? Now, there? A rising run, g-b-d-g? That was the bird he had drawn, its pert tail and brown legs. And probably this was that very wren.

He needed money. There were always requests for his work—he was known for meticulous preparations. So he worked down the list, doing what he could. He could not afford to be sentimental.

Its bright eyes—and oh, its song! At night he heard it while out in the corridor nurses chatted and prepared medications. Don’t be sentimental, Tom, he told himself. When they came to put a small pill in his mouth, he kept his back turned away so they wouldn’t see the tears.

the ghosts of christmas past

I loved the moment in A Christmas Carol (which might have been my father’s favourite movie) when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer Scrooge’s hand and flies with him over London, out into the countryside where Scrooge sees his younger self, lonely and abandoned at boarding school, then rescued by his beloved sister. There’s a joyous party with the portly and kind Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge sees himself falling in love with a young penniless woman and then extracting himself from that early relationship when he becomes more interested in commerce than love.

Dickens knew something about Christmas. It is truly a time of ghosts. The gatherings of the years, over the years, the parties, the sad occasions when the recently-dead were more present than anyone else (it seemed so to me, at least), the sound of bells in the night (which turned out to be the windchime near our bedroom window but which had its own magical moment as we listened and wondered), the arrival of guests in snow, the bringing in of the tree to dress in all the finery hidden away for the rest of the year, the scent of oranges, bowls of nuts and foil-wrapped chocolates,  the stockings miraculously filled overnight and waiting by the woodstove, the music  — Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, Bruce Cockburn, silvery harp versions of all the old carols, Stephen Chatman’s A Chatman Christmas for choral splendor, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Light of the Stable with the transcendent Emmylou Harris, oh, and  so many more…more songs, more ghosts. I love the season but know that there are always moments when a shade casts its shadow in the bright kitchen and the Christmases of the past crowd into my heart. making me sit for a moment to honour their memory. “These are the shadows of things that have been,” the Ghost tells Scrooge and I always cried, because it seemed so deeply true. No matter how the years accumulate with their rich promises, their gifts (an early morning Skype date with my grand-daughter Kelly: when I was saying goodbye, I recited a line from a book I gave her the last time I saw her — “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” — and her dad said, “She’s going to her bookshelf to get the book…”), there are always the losses, the boy in the classroom with his book, abandoned. The love cast aside for whatever reason. The darkness.

This morning I’ve been preparing jars of marinated olives, Gaeta and Cerignola olives with slivers of our own garlic, Meyer lemons (from the tree in the sunroom), branches of rosemary and thyme from the garden, red wine vinegar and lovely green olive oil. Oh, and little dried chilies. When I finished all this and cut some paper for labels, I thought how the olives looked so beautiful in their clear jars, ready to be gifted, and opened by friends in their own time. This will be the first year olives find their way into the Christmas bags but so many people don’t eat gluten or sugar these days so these at least are free of those particular additives. But this afternoon I’ll bake the shortbread with rosemary (for remembrance) and the gingerbread boys with their Smartie buttons and dragee eyes, the same ones I’ve made for the last 30 years. Because there are ghosts and there are ghosts, the shadows of things that have been, and when I listen to Burgess Meredith recite the spine-tingling “ Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil” (“I sing of a night in Bethlehem,/A night as bright as dawn./I sing of that night in Bethlehem/The night the Word was born.”) followed by Kevin Conneff singing it in Irish, I’ll want shortbread and a glass of sherry, the memory of lying in my bed in darkness, waiting for morning and the stockings and carols, and hearing bells as clear as anything.


postcard from Haskins Creek

Last week, no salmon. And since then, it’s rained almost every day, torrential rain with huge wet winds. This morning the sky cleared and there’s sun, though its passage is very low this time of year, moving towards the longest night.  When we neared the creek, I heard an eagle. But no sign of it in the huge cedars along the creek.

P1120549First we saw a quick little jack, the precocious males who come into the spawning creeks a year earlier than the others of their cohort. They’re darker and they don’t have the kype that mature coho have — the hooked snout and large teeth. They don’t have the beautiful colouring either. In mature spawning coho, the bodies are dark green with burgundy sides and rosy bellies. The way they move through the fast water is lovely; they undulate and find their way against the current.

This pair were hovering under an overhanging log and I think the female was excavating a redd — at one point she was on her side, flexing, and then she slapped her tail.

P1120550I hope there will still be salmon in the creek when some of my family return home just before Christmas. Walking over in sunlight or in rain has been part of our season for as long as we’ve lived here. As the days get shorter, we need the promise of new life, of light, the solace of those cycles which have gone on among the genus Oncorhynchus for at least a million years, moving from its freshwater salmon ancestors (similar to genus Salmo) west, to the Pacific ocean, and north over the Bering landbridge to eastern Asia. Imagine that. And imagine how precarious their status now that we’ve figured out as a species how to dam rivers, damage habitat in every way possible (toxins, effluents, clearcutting the riparian zone which is necessary for water temperature, bank stabilization, moisture absorbtion, high-scale water removal for agriculture and other applications). The cynics among us believe that fish-farming which take care of the human desire for marine protein in our diets. The fatalists think we are probably all doomed anyway.

I’m not a cynic, nor a fatalist. A witness maybe. A praise-singer — one of my earliest published poems,  written when I was 19, was called “River Blessing”; it ends this way:

The silver thread of her is fertile:

I have seen dark otters ride her shape,

seen rain exhaust itself inside her.


I shall sing over her

the chilly vowels of this blessing:


     Blessed be her, she grows Coho

     seeds them, roots them, gathers them back

coho salmon

we’re #28

I love the series of Literary Landmarks featured in B.C. BookWorld online. (http://bcbooklook.com/2015/12/02/john-pass-theresa-kishkan/) John and I are #28; our landmark is the corner of May Street and Memorial Crescent in Victoria, the locus for my novel The Age of Water Lilies and a place very dear to both of us. As new lovers we walked those enchanted streets and into the Ross Bay Cemetery which was where I played as a child, riding my bike up and down its quiet lanes and listening to the buried streams flowing under it to the Strait of Juan of Fuca.

And I love this photo of us, taken by my brother in early summer, 1980. What shows: our youth, our happiness. What doesn’t show: I was newly pregnant with our son Forrest, though I didn’t know it would be him. (I had the option of knowing the gender after an ultrasound but I thought I’d like to be surprised.)


as the year approaches its conclusion

I’ve been sorting and tidying again, preparing for another of the bonfires of the vanities. I have a small bag with papers and a desk covered with stuff to be assessed, in the way one does — reading, remembering, wondering what on earth to do with a hardbacked notebook from the time I spent living on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. On the one hand, it’s hard to read endless accounts of weather and washing hair with cold rainwater from the cistern. Of picking nettles for soup. Baking soda bread. The tally of the day’s walks — some driftwood for the fire, a few feathers, the jawbone of a dog revealed in the sand dunes by the cemetery. Yet it’s a record. But for whom? And how?

After my parents died, my brothers and I and our partners cleared out their apartment. Nothing was sorted and it was a strange experience to open a box and find old report cards, recipes, photographs of people I have no knowledge of, receipts for prescriptions from the last century, false teeth,  eyeglasses, keys of every description. I returned home determined to organize my own stuff a bit more efficiently so that those having to clear out my study won’t have to struggle with decisions about what to keep and what to burn. Luckily there are no false teeth. Yet.

The notebooks are particularly vexatious. Like Joan Didion in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” (from Slouching Towards Bethlehem), I am grateful to occasionally meet my younger self.

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

But do I really want anyone else to meet her? At one point she makes a will. She’s 23. She leaves her manuscripts to someone her older self hasn’t seen in 35 years. (And those manuscripts went up in smoke years ago!) There are too many descriptions of her attempts to keep clean (two basins, one for sea water, one for the more precious fresh, from the rainwater cistern).  Delight in a bucket of new potatoes left at the door. A tally of letters brought by boat from the mainland. Songs heard on a RTE radio programme I loved — Sunday Miscellany, in which Pearse Hutchinson played songs (“The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow” sung by Paddy Tunney, a fine old voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFzmKvLHQ20). And I don’t need that notebook to recall how it was when Paddy Tunney sang “The Green Fields of Canada” while my little turf fire smouldered and I thought I’d die from the melancholy beauty of the world.

The lint dams are gone and the looms are lying idle
Gone are the winders of baskets and creels
And away o’er the ocean, go journeyman cowboys
And fiddlers who play out the old mountain reels

For now I’ll keep the notebooks in a drawer. For now. But I’m keeping them for me, not anyone else. And one day I’ll have to decide what to do with them in a final sort of way.

old notebook

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. (“On Keeping a Notebook”)

days of grace

Weeks go by and I don’t pay enough attention to the small moments of grace. Coming in just now, I almost missed the winter jasmine blooming by the stairs to the porch. Almost missed the tiny movement of the winter wren who ducked in and then out of the woven house hanging out my study window. (No birds ever nest in it but the wrens haunt it for insects and I suspect they might gather in it on cold nights.) On our walk up the mountain, we thought for sure that someone else would have seen and cut the grand fir we hope to bring home for our Christmas tree this year — but no, the tree is still there! If you’ve ever smelled Abies grandis, then you’ll know why we’ve got our (collective) eye on this one — I crushed a branch in my hands this morning and they still hold a little of that wild green aromatic scent. (And if you’re wondering why we don’t just cut it and bring it back now, well, it’s because we’ve always cut our tree on the morning of Christmas Eve so we can decorate it through the long afternoon leading to the Eve, a habit from the years when our children were little and we needed to keep them busy on the day before Christmas.)

So grace, the seasonal gifts: a woodshed filled with dry fir, pantry shelves lined with preserves, a warm house, good health, love. The yellow stars of winter jasmine in a cedar lattice. I know that all of this could change suddenly so I want to notice now and be grateful. It’s easy to be careless. Easy to remember the dark moments, the small bitter slights.  But right now, hands still green with the mountain’s grand fir growing in a hidden slope, I am full of gratitude and hope.



“… a broken and discontinuous subterranean narrative.”

I’m reading The Lost Landscape, the new memoir by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m not particularly drawn to her fiction and in truth this book is uneven — a whole chapter told from the perspective of Happy Chicken??? But the chapter I’m reading now is one in which she parses the hidden stories of her mother and father. A murder, an attempted murder, a child (her mother) given away to people who might have been relatives. Or maybe not. And I recognize something deeply familiar. She writes of the “childhood mysteries”, and how she wonders if they are at the root of her fiction: “I find myself imagining that what I am inventing is in some way “real”; if I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life. That the mystery is never solved would seem to be the reason for the writer’s continuous effort to solve it — each story, each poem, each novel is a restatement of the quest to penetrate the mystery, tirelessly restated. The writer is the decipherer of clues — if by “clues” is meant a broken and discontinuous subterranean narrative.”

As I grow older, I increasingly want to know the mystery of my mother’s birth. I’ve written of that in these (virtual) pages and it’s the subject of a section of the memoir I’m currently working on. Who was she? Some things are known. Shirley MacDonald, born in Sydney, Cape Breton Island, in 1926 to an unwed mother whose surname was McDougall. My mother was put into foster care at a few days of age and she lived with her foster mother and sister and brother until she was old enough to move out on her own. That foster mother was Emma Morton Watson, widow of Dr. David T.C. Watson, a physician and medical missionary who died in 1917. I’ve been to Sydney. I’ve asked questions. I’ve written letters. I’ve applied for my mother’s birth certificate because she was told that the names of her birth parents were recorded on her birth certificate but the Vital Statistics office in Halifax tells me I have no right to that information until 100 years after my mother’s birth. Let’s hope I’m still alive in 2026.

My mother had little bits of information about her possible birth father. She was told — I don’t know if it was her foster mother or her foster sister (Helen Maude Watson) who told her this — that he was the brother of a prominent Halifax physician.  She told me this. I’m sure of it, or at least as sure as anything that she told me. But apparently she didn’t tell my brothers this. So I am aware there’s the possibility that I’ve misremembered. But I don’t think so. I ‘ve known this — or believe I’ve known it — my entire adult life.

I’ve looked at lists of doctors in Halifax from the period of her childhood and there’s something that stands out. Her foster mother’s brother, Dr. Angus MacDonald Morton, was a physician in Bedford, a suburban community of Halifax. He had five sons, one of whom died in infancy. One of them, Allan Reid Morton, followed his father into medicine. Here are some notes about him from the CPHA website:

He graduated in medicine from Dalhousie University, Halifax, in 1925 and went into general practice in Wolfville until his appointment in 1927 as Assistant Medical Superintendent of the Nova Scotia Hospital. From 1934 to 1939 he again practiced medicine in Halifax and in 1938, became part-time Medical Officer of Health of the City of Halifax. From 1937 to 1939 he was also Superintendent of the Halifax Tuberculosis Hospital and received a Rockefeller scholarship and graduated in 1940 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with a Master of Public Health degree. He returned to Halifax and became the first full-time Medical Officer of Health for that City and in 1941 he assumed the dual responsibility of Commissioner of Health and Welfare for the City of Halifax. At this time, he also accepted an appointment as Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Dalhousie University.

The other brothers were also quite successful, or at least two of them were. One became a chemistry professor at Carlton University and one became a journalist, eventually buying the Dartmouth Free Press and teaching journalism. There was also a sister. There’s a photograph of her in my mother’s foster sister’s photo album in which that sister looks a lot like my mum. In fact, in a photo of the whole family, I see my mum in many of them. Is this just because I want to? I’m willing to believe that. But I’m also willing to believe this might be part of the secret my mum grew up within, perhaps a part of, but shamed from being included in.

If a child is born out of wedlock and there’s a widowed sister who needs money and she is a nurse, thus reliable as a carer of children, then it makes sense to hide the illegitimate child in plain view. Doesn’t it? I wonder if I’ll ever know. I have all these photographs, these suggestions of a trail, but no certificate to prove my mother’s provenance. Her name, hidden in theirs. Her dark hair. The fact that she was told (though I’ve never found any evidence of it) by her foster mother that there were possiblities of adoption during her childhood but her foster mother didn’t want to give her up. Love wasn’t mentioned. But perhaps there were family expectations that the foster arrangement would continue.

Increasingly, that “subterranean narrative” has taken its place in my writing, asking to be brought to light, the way buried streams are daylighted. In fact a small section of the piece I am currently working on is titled “Daylighting”:

“Daylighting—the practice of restoring a stream that had been routed through a culvert back to its natural state—is becoming a more common stormwater trend.”
Let me bring you back to life, to light. Let me trace the route of all those undercurrents, the dark waters idling their way to the sea, find the bed and the riffles of oxygen, the small tributaries that lead away from a source but which might, with effort, allow me to find the spring of your origin.

who was she
Mum as a child (the dark-haired one)
the mortons
the mortons