When my grandson Arthur was born in October, I took a gift to him (and his father and his grandfather): a t-shirt (in Arthur’s case, a onesie; but his dad and grandfather have regular shirts!) in honour of Forrest’s favourite childhood book. How many times did we read Where the Wild Things Are? Oh, a thousand. At least. It seemed to me then — and still does — a perfect distillation of childhood rebellion and the constancy of love. So how wonderful to have this photo in my inbox just now, courtesy of Manon. Our own wild thing, after his bath.
In the darkest days of winter, we eat our supper on chairs in front of the woodstove, plates balanced on our knees. Looking into fire is preferable to looking out to darkness through the large uncurtained window in our little dining area. But last night the sky was more like a February sky, a deepening blue after the sun set, with the pinky-gold of its setting still glowing beyond the horizon; so we cleared off the long pine table and sat there, candles lit, and the first stars appearing.
The day before yesterday I pruned two unruly roses and heard tree frogs somewhere in the garden. It’s too soon, I called to them, and was surprised at how quickly they went silent! But the garlic is growing well, crowns of columbine are emerging from the clutter of their dead stems, and a few broadbeans (which must have self-sown) are showing every sign of continuing to flourish.
Inside today (because of rain), I’ve been working on finishing up some essays. I think I have a book’s worth. A few still need a fair bit of revising but there’s a body of work there, always a surprise to see even though it’s what I am — was– working towards. Here’s a little passage from a piece about the ballast, known and unknown, carried by those who came before us — my own grandparents, neighbours, the early residents of the neighbourhood where I spent my teenaged years.
In small communities or the old neighbourhoods of larger ones – towns, cities, even the places where rural areas have been absorbed by suburban sprawl — it’s not uncommon to find sturdy plantings which have survived many decades. Lilacs in cold climates often bloom exuberantly without any care at all. Delphiniums send up their tall spires, blue as the sky, though in well-tended gardens they are routinely eaten by slugs. And roses – well, you can tell where homestead gardens were located by the profuse canes of old species ramblers and rugosas – Dr. Van Fleet, Blanc Double de Coubert. Unpruned, unwatered, they cascade over whatever supports might be nearby: a wire fence, a tree (sometimes even a lilac), the remains of a staircase leading nowhere.
I’ve taken my share of cuttings. My 3 New Dawn roses come from the garden of my parents’ neighbour. When she was in her 80s, she told me how her mother had started the roses from a slip given her by the Ferry sisters, a duo who lived nearby in one of the oldest houses in Saanich. The New Dawns, the palest pink (the colour of my baby daughter’s shoulders when Daisy Harknett gave me cuttings), tangled themselves in the limbs of an equally ancient pear. When the property was subdivided and the back part sold, with an old stable, the pear tree with its cargo of roses, and other perennials I never thought to ask for, a man pulled out the rose with a backhoe. I don’t know where he took it.
Some old wood, some new wood, said Daisy Harknett. So I cut pieces with both. I dipped the lower part of the wood in rooting hormone (though I could have used a tea of willow bark) and stuck them into little pots of soil. And now my New Dawns tumble over (respectively) a beam, a pergola, the front door of my house.
In the woods between Elk Lake and Beaver Lake, there was an abandoned house (sometimes I think I dreamed this because no one else I’ve spoken to remembers it) completed knitted into place by honeysuckle and roses. Knitted into memory by roses of a kind I’ve never seen since, apple-scented, white, and humming with bees. On my black horse, I approached with the sense that here was an ancient fairy tale hidden in the woods. Which were not wild exactly but remnant – a few forgotten apple trees, pruned by deer, beaked hazelnut, even laburnum. It was a tale I entered, as a girl will, with a sense of wonder and expectation. I tied my horse to a tree and tried to peer in the windows laced every which way with canes. And though there might have been a prince sleeping within, he didn’t wake.
If it seems quiet from my part of the world, it’s because it isn’t. It’s busy — a visiting grandson and his parents and aunt last week, followed by a mid-winter chamber music weekend organized by the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival committee, of which I’m a member. All of it lovely — tiny Arthur with his huge smile cuddling in bed with me one morning and tolerating many verses of “Mary Hamilton”; two concerts of the music of Brahms and both Schumanns, Clara and Robert, performed by Gary Levinson (violin), Baya Kakouberi (piano), and Andres Diaz (cello); meals with friends; some long walks through winter woods.
Today I turned and the tulips in the pot, only buds yesterday, were in bloom.
So as the flowers open, thoughts turn to road trips, driving up the Fraser Canyon with the car windows open, stopping at every historical signpost, taking the same photographs over and over (the hills, the river, the lonely abandoned cabins). I woke in the middle of the night, or rather very early this morning, and worked on a novella-in-progress, and the sentences took me into a beloved landscape. Here are a few of those sentences for those of you who also dream of other places, warmth, and the scent of sage:
Our bodies are porous. They take in river water, sunlight, the scent of Artemisa frigida, dust from bone dry slopes, dust of bones themselves littered on the talus (bighorn sheep, marmots, the tiny hollow leg bone of birds eaten and excreted by coyotes, sand particles), pollen from ponderosa pines, midges, spores too minute to affect anything other than a lung, fine hairs of mule deer, the stink of migrating salmon. Over us, the deep blue sky, through us the air so warm and clear we breathe it in deeply and it doesn’t seem altered when we exhale yet the work of our bodies is there too. And helium, beryllium, and carbon, iron and nickel, the dust from dying stars. (from The Marriage of Rivers)
They’ve left, beginning the long day’s journey back to Ottawa, with visits to a friend in Vancouver planned, and they’ll drop Angelica off at the seaplane so she can return to her life in Victoria. And already I miss them. Families are such complex archives — the haircolours, the gestures, the stories. And how lovely it was to have a week living in the rich density of that archive. Though it had its moments of confusion. We’d pulled out some boxes of photographs and documents from my parents’ house and there were a couple of envelopes of things I’d set aside to give to my brothers when next I see them. Their baby pictures, our parents’ wedding photographs, old report cards, the church announcement (St. Andrew’s, Victoria) of my brother Dan’s baptism June 24, 1951 (and the back of this is so interesting, with its advertisements for businesses long gone: The Posy Shop at 623 Fort Street, ph: G-5422; Crown Dress & Hat Shop Millinery, Dresses and Accessories 614 View Street; The Toggery Shop Men’s and Young Men’s Clothiers, Hatters and Furnishers “Quality Always Assured” at 1105 Douglas Street). I was doing something else and Angelica was looking at the stuff in Dan’s envelope, including a baby photograph of him, when I heard her call out, “This is you, Mum, not Dan. Look, here’s your birthmark!”
I was born with a dark birthmark the size of a dime on my wrist. It wasn’t raised, it never bothered me, not as a child or a young adult — although there were times in my adolescence when I was embarrassed by it (as I was with my surname until I was about 18), it was part of me and I thought it would stay with me my entire life. Then we spent a winter in Utah and I met a plastic surgeon at a dinner party and he urged me to have it removed. He would remove it, he said, for no charge. (He was Robert Redford’s dermatologist and spent a lot of time making the beautiful people even more beautiful. None of them wanted marks or blemishes or tags of skin.) But I didn’t want to have it removed. He insisted I take him seriously; he said I was at risk for skin cancer and that I should reconsider; so when we returned home that spring, I arranged with my doctor to have it dealt with. I miss it. I have a strange little scar on my wrist now instead of my friendly dark circle that somehow reassured me as a small child. It was my own special mark.
Before this, I didn’t have many images of myself as an infant. Cameras and film were expensive and in the early years of their marriage and young parenthood, my parents took pictures sparingly. This looks like a portrait — it’s been coloured in that old-fashioned way. John remarked that I should have known it was me because my feet haven’t really changed. And there are those sturdy calves, also unchanged. In fact, among my three brothers, Dan and I share a body type — our father’s.
It’s very fitting to have one’s children and grandchildren visit in January. A month named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, usually represented with two heads, one to look back and one to look forward; often one face is bearded and the other clean-shaven. I always think of the month itself (the month of my birth) as a jani, or ceremonial gateway, an opening. I was surprised at how I felt to see that 60-year old photograph of my infant self, birthmark intact, and how appropriate it seems to have it now to look at and think about, as the month progresses. It’s a kind of vertigo, a whoosh of apprehension of both time and its obstacles, but also its possibilities. To look back, with gratitude (that I was born, I was loved, I was part of a family) and also regret (the loss of that birthmark!); and to welcome the gateway into the unknown (the garden yet unplanted, the future children unborn). To remember the old businesses of Victoria, the infancy of my brothers, and to look into the deep future as easily as the deep past.
O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.
— George Oppen, from “The Building of the Skyscraper”
Yesterday, after a walk along the trail we call Cedar Bridge, it seemed like a good idea to have an outdoor campfire (or “fire-camp”, as Francophone Manon calls it). John was delegated to make the fire and Forrest arranged chairs around it. I made hot chocolate, tucked a bottle of Carolans Irish Cream into the basket, along with gingerbreads and leftover Christmas cake. I found the marshmallow forks hung in the rafters of the workshop. It would Arthur’s first fire-camp.
The fire crozzled (a good Yorkshire word). Lots of smoke. No heat. The hot chocolate was lukewarm. The marshmallows burst into flame instead of toasting to a golden brown. Arthur was fussing and maybe the smoke stung his eyes.
But then it got dark. An owl hooted far away (though when we hooted back, it went quiet). The fire caught nicely and the last marshmallows on the fork were just the way I like them. The moon rose over Hallowell, smudgy in the fog. And the stars came out, one by one, in the western sky, visible between passing clouds and branches of high fir. I thought of an old poem of John’s, written for Arthur’s father Forrest during the summer we lived in a tent with a young baby and worked on the lumber and concrete footings that eventually became a house. Then a home.
When you sleep I look up
from the fire cleansed
of names, any further
attempt at description, all
but the absurdities of range I fathom
laughing a little, amazed
to see them.
— John Pass, from “The Stars”, publishing in Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990)
My son Forrest, his wife Manon, and their 3-month old baby Arthur (my grandson! I love saying it…) are here for a week, along with Arthur’s Aunty Angie from Victoria. This morning I came into the kitchen and saw this little scene which tugged at my heart:
Last night, as part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”
Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?
An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:
A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.
While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.
How long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.
Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.
It’s no secret among my family and friends that I love boots. Not Uggs or slim high-heeled ones but, well, western boots. I have other boots too and enjoy wearing them. But cowboy boots? With dresses? That’s me, a style sense I learned early from Emmylou Harris, whose early albums feature her in boots. Gorgeous ones. The late Bronwen Wallace knew this and wrote so beautifully of Emmylou and her boots in Keep That Candle Burning Bright:
Another thing I like about Emmylou Harris is how
the boots she’s wearing on the album cover always fit
her songs: sleek and expensive on Elite Hotel, fringed
and slightly sleazy on Evangaline, white with sleek
black toes on White Shoes. And when she favours
pink, it’s not just any pink. The boots she’s wearing
on Angel Band are what I think of as old-fashioned,
spiritual pink, almost mauve, like those unspectacular,
but heavenly-scented roses country gardens used to
grow, while the ones on The Ballad of Sally Rose
shimmer with the surprising incandescence of Bob
Dylan’s hat when he walks in stage in The Last
Waltz or that split-second of sunset in early July, if
you catch it from a canoe, in the middle of a lake,
with a thermos of good coffee beside you.
And yes, is what I have to say to that. (And as a side-note, John watched The Last Waltz on New Year’s Eve while I slept off the last of the noro-virus visited upon our house over the holiday and he said it was as wonderful as ever.)
So no surprise that one of my Christmas gifts (from John) is a calendar featuring 18 months’ worth of boots. He hung it for me this morning by the porch door and I look forward to the months turning so I can laugh out loud at each new portrait of spectacular boots.
I own one pair of three-toned brown cowboy boots from the Red Barn in Kamloops, bought with the honorarium for an essay in Lake, a journal published for a time at UBC-Okanagan. I happened to be in Kamloops when the acceptance email arrived in my box and so I knew exactly what I wanted to spend the money on. (I’d already tried on the boots and decided it would be frivolous to buy them. That is, until writing money happened my way…) And I have the most beautiful red roping boots, made of deerskin, which gave me the title of my first collection of essays: Red Laredo Boots. And again, I saw them, decided I couldn’t afford them, but returned to buy them when the essay I’d written with them as a centrepiece was sold for exactly what the boots cost. It was February, 1994 or 5, and we’d gone on a family road trip:
We drive out to Quilchena in the late afternoon. Nanci Griffith still sings, though the kids ask for something else. But this song suits me fine — Oh, I might be gone a long old time, and it’s only that I’m asking. Is there something I can send you to remember me by, to make your time more easy passing? By now a cold wind is blowing off the lake but the kids still want ice cream in the general store. And I want something, too, though I don’t know what it is. I buy an enamelled blue coffeepot because the copper one at home has lost its handle — and I lose my heart to boots. These are no ordinary boots but red Laredo boots, sitting on the shelf with the purple ones, the green ones, the regular browns and blacks. If there weren’t $175 I’d try them on in a minute, but as it is they are just a fancy. Oh I could do things in these boots, do anything, climb, dance, walk for miles. The lady who works in the store asks us where we’ve come from and seems surprised that we are so familiar with the area. We tell her we come very summer and we just wanted to see the country in winter. We talk about the changes over the years and then she asks me if I like Ian Tyson. Out of the blue.
“He comes to Douglas Lake every summer, you know.”
I assure her that I love Ian Tyson, particularly “And Stood There Amazed.”
“Then I’ll give you the Douglas Lake number and you should phone early for tickets. The barn only holds eight hundred and the tickets go fast.”
I thank her and we drive back to Merritt, two children asleep in the back and the other quiet. I am thinking of the boots. I could wear them to the Ian Tyson dance and maybe waltz in the arms of a cowboy.
I bought the boots but I never went to the dance. Never waltzed in the arms of a cowboy. Though now, in my kitchen, with the boots hanging on the wall, a new pair each month, it might be time.
So it’s winter and for me, that means quilting. There’s something about having my hands full of fabric, finding a way to create texture with a needle drawing thread over and through the surface of a quilt, pulling the layers together in a durable way. A subversive way, because no one could imagine how much pleasure and deep thinking is given to the work of making a practical thing. A bedcover, after all! A blanket of scraps! My mother used to knit, badly — I feel mean saying this, but honestly everything she knit for us was lopsided; the bulky Buffalo yarn sweaters had the collars on backwards and they always needed several extra inches added to the cuffs and those inches were often in a different yarn because she’d run out of the main one. She knit lovingly though and I remember she once said, giving me a blanket she’d made for one of my babies, that she couldn’t bear to have a winter pass without something to show for it. I know what she meant. A quilt, a blanket, a sweater which I still wear (for gardening) which barely covers my wrists and sort of flares at the waist.
This morning I was writing a letter to a friend and I told her this:
Yesterday I was putting away some quilting supplies (I finished the Euclid’s Orchard quilt for Brendan for Christmas!) and saw a basket of blocks I’d finished in the spring, all in a heat of creation, and then abandoned because they didn’t make sense to me once I’d tried to find a pattern with them. But yesterday I saw how I could take apart some of the long strips and rearrange them and use another fabric I have for sashing and voila, I think I’ll have something close to what I’d first envisioned. We’ll see. (It sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it?)
I spent a few hours unpicking the long strips of blocks and this morning I began to arrange them on top of my bed to see if I can create a woven effect with alternating blocks. The blocks are pieced with four inch strips of reds, blues, and white damask from some old tablecloths I can’t bear to throw out. Some of the reds and blues are prints and some solids. I hadn’t anticipated that the way I’d first sewn them together would result in a series of French flags — I don’t have a very refined spatial sense. I have to do things by doing them. I can’t “see” clearly until the thing itself is in front of me. I use the word “envisioned” in the letter but it isn’t really vision at all. It’s hope. If I sew these things together, I hope I will have a pattern that approximates, well, something I might have dreamed or seen or imagined. I do it to find something out. And to spend time in the rocking chair in front of the woodstove, the scent of dry fir lightly perfuming the cottons.
And these days, while I unpick and resew, while I think about texture and how the damask has probably been the silent witness of hundreds of family meals, some of them ours, I’ve been listening in an almost obsessive way to The Trackless Woods, written about here. It is such a perfect recording, a relationship across the decades — or the centuries by now. Across continents and sensibilities. Amazing, how one woman found another to talk to in this way, to accompany in this way. I read a beautiful interview on the NPR site and loved this question, asked by Ann Power:
The Trackless Woods emerges from the act of reading. You fell into the Akhmatova poems somewhat unexpectedly, and clearly sat with them for a while as you were composing the music. The album’s intimate, domestic feel evokes a similar response from the listener. How can music be like reading? What did you get from reading Akhmatova’s poems that you most hope will come across in your versions?
And Iris DeMent’s reply:
Some of them I sat with a long time; with others, the melody came as I was reading them for the first or second time. My experience with and connection to poetry has primarily been through songs, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to me that most, if not all, of these poems weren’t fully known to me, or understood on that deeper emotional level, until the melodies arrived. It was like the melody served as a doorway, a means by which I was able to enter the poem and that was the criteria I used when determining whether or not a particular melody stood up or not: It either allowed me entrance into the poem or it didn’t. And that’s something I never had to wonder about. It’s like any other door, it either opens up and lets you into the room or it doesn’t. It’s very basic. I could feel that every time.
Maybe my own sewing is part of this right now. A door, an entrance — into winter, its powerful hoard of memories and requirements (quiet, warmth, an abundance of quilts). As Iris sang “The souls of all my dears”, I found myself weeping at these lines as I cut out sashing for each course of blocks:
The souls of all my dears
have flown to the stars
Memorial hour returns with each new year
I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near
You step onto the porch and call my name
Your face pressed up against the frosted pane
Is it my mother, come back for a brief visit, lopsided sweater in her arms? Or the poet herself, across the river of languages, or the singer of these poems, her sweet voice in the falling light? Those who sat at the table laid with damask have gone home. Everywhere the scent of fir, the call of thread and cotton, the frost on the branches outside as lovely as silver.