their chair (from a work-in-progress)

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I looked out just now and saw their chair by my bedroom window. Part of the patio set they won from a radio show (my mother always knew the phrase that paid and the advertiser of the hour), made of dark green webbing with textured green cushions. We brought it back from their apartment after my mother died and it’s the one my husband sits on when we have coffee on the upper deck, the deck that surrounds three sides of our second-storey bedroom and his study and our bathroom. Three sides of weather and tree tops and the mountain. Usually the chair is over by John’s study but after lunch I carried it to the small area in front of the sunroom door where the dog rose climbs around the bedroom window, along with trumpet vine, wisteria, and deep pink honeysuckle. The sun travels lower on its trajectory from east to west, from Hallowell to beyond Texada each September day, filtered more densely through Douglas firs than even a week ago; in high summer it passes directly overhead, clear of trees, from its rising at 8 until its setting at least 12 hours later. I sat in the chair for half an hour, in-between watering and making tomato jam, re-reading Portrait of a Lady. And then returned to work, because sitting felt too much like indolence. The chair smells of them. Passing it now, after its few hours in late sunlight, I can smell my parents as though they’re both there, taking the warmth of an afternoon, talking quietly, not noticing me in my old skirt and tank top, hair wrestled into a knot to keep it from my face as I reach into the tomato vines for more fruit for my jam. I never knew I would miss them as much I do now, smelling them in the coarse green cushions, my book abandoned across the seat. There was so much I never told them. They didn’t want to know about books (Henry James?) or lofty thoughts or travel plans for Europe. They hoped I’d share ideas for stretching a dollar, ways to shop thriftily, to use up odds and ends from the fridge. Varicose veins and sore teeth. Stomach acid or the wisdom of generic vitamins or difficulties with the bowels. They wanted me to prove I was theirs, that I’d paid attention to their lessons, their advice, that no one else meant more to me than them. It’s taken me so many years to learn that there is some truth to this. I look at my hands and see hers. My slow metabolism and sluggish blood-pressure, which came from him.

Later, I look out again, the back of the chair impossibly sad. His head touched the green vinyl strapping. Hers, too. On the shabby deck of the house on Mann Avenue, they sat in their chairs – this one, and a kitchen chair brought outside through the sliding doors which they locked after each use, bolting down the extra Plexiglas panel at night against all those who lurked, wanting to break in to steal their hifi, their clock radio – waiting for the seagull who came some days for old bread. Willie, they called it. Also a neighbour’s cat.The heavy foot of the mailman as he trudged up their stairs.

the lost operas of Mozart

In Vancouver, at the SKWACHÀYS LODGE, for City Opera’s production of “The Lost Operas of Mozart” this evening at Christ Church Cathedral — for us, one draw being Rose-Ellen Nichols, of Pender Harbour. (Rose-Ellen went to school with our kids and has gone on to an impressive career as a mezzo-soprano, starring in Tobin Stokes’s “Pauline”, singing in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, and delighting audiences at our Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, where she’ll be returning next summer!)

And on the drive in from Tsawwassen, there were snow geese in a field. We’ve seen geese a time or two, flying over our place, west of the mountain, and I loved turning my head for a moment in the car to see them grazing on stubble in a shorn field.

snow-geese

postcard from the Surf Motel

Down Vancouver Island this morning after a terrific reading event last evening in Nanaimo, Wordstorm, with a generous audience (and a delicious Goan prawn dish first at the host restaurant, the Tandoori Junction). I said, as we drove, that I always know when I’m on the Island (where I spent most of the first twenty five years of my life, apart from some years in Halifax, Matsqui, Greece, and Ireland) because my skin feels as though it’s come home. I know where I am by scent. By the air. And approaching Goldstream River, I knew the salmon were there. We stopped and in pouring rain I walked out to see them, the chum (or dog) salmon my father used to take us to see each autumn. The salmon I’m used to watching now are sockeye and coho, both more colourful when they spawn, so it took my eyes a few minutes to see the silver bodies in the grey water. But I could smell them, a fresh smell, water and fish and rain. There were a few dead ones

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and gulls whirling above, a kingfisher rattling in a cedar, and walking back, I was surprised to see blossom:

blackberry-blossom

I thought of Michelle Shocked’s song “Blackberry Blossom” and it seemed so right to be humming it as I returned to the car where John was listening to jazz:

Can you tell me what happened to the blossom
Blackberry blossom when the summertime came?
The blackberry blossom, oh the last time I saw one
Was down in the bramble where I rambled in the spring.

Everything a piece, a part of my history, my memory, even stopping in to see the Mammoth exhibit at the Museum with Angelica and being reminded, among the mastadon jaws and the mammoth tusks and even Lyuba herself, 42,000 years old,

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that one of my sons, aged about 4, used to say that he wanted to be Early Man when he grew up, having been entranced by drawings of hominini in my old anthropology textbooks, hairy people around campfires with mammoths lurking in the background. So time passes, rivers run, salmon spawn, boys grow up to be mathematicians rather than Australopithicus, and the breakwater at Ogden Point is now fenced for our safety. Still, the sealions pass in joy, a heron fishes from a clump of bull kelp, and the sea, oh the sea, is the same sea I loved as a child, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula barely visible through cloud.

And now back at the Surf Motel where we stayed when one son (that son) was married to his sweetheart on Beacon Hill and where I walked on the breakwater very early on the morning of his wedding, remembering everything.

Early man, wish you were here.

my shallow eyes of water

Bits of my life
All glazed with water
tiles farewell
My shallow eyes of water

This is a little fragment (courtesy of Google translate, as I was unable to find the lyrics in English) of the fadista Joana Amendoeira’s song, “Fado dos Azulejos”. Fado and azulejos are what I think of when I remember Lisbon. We spent a week there, with several more weeks in other parts of Portugal, the winter before last. We had a little apartment in the Alfama and this was the view from one window:

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We’d come to Lisbon from Evora and in Evora we’d entered churches through dark wooden doors to find rooms of light. The azulejos — the word means “tiles” but the azulejos are more an element of culture, a way of interpreting space, of extending it and notating it — became the way we saw interiors in Portugal. In churches and palaces, azulejos were used the way tapestries and other elaborate textiles decorate such places in other countries. Even the altars are covered with azulejos rather than linen finely embroidered with gold. They have a long history, arriving in Portugal 5 centuries ago as part of the Arab presence on the Iberian peninsula. They seem to have come from Seville, though I suspect there are as many opinions on this as there are styles of azulejos. The word sounds like its root is “blue”, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s from the Arabic, “al zulaycha” or “zellige”, meaning little polished stone. A means of making pattern, like mosaics of marble. I read somewhere that they represent a rejection of emptiness and those spaces  with their vaulted ceilings — the churches in Faro and Evora and Lisbon and Sintra — are anything but empty. You could see how the artistic tradition developed as you moved from a 16th c. church to a late 17th c. one, particularly if the work was done by Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes or his son Policarpo; the figures in their azulejos are so shapely and multi-dimensional, the perspective sophisticated and the faces beautifully detailed.

And the blue and white azulejos were sort of late to the game, in any case, becoming popular in the 17th century with the arrival of Delft tiles — and those influenced by Chinese porcelains and Indian chintzs. I loved the practicality of azulejos, the way they moderate temperature, reflecting heat in summer and humidity in winter. Our apartment had a series of clothes lines running horizontally just below the window facing the azulejos; hanging out a load of our well-travelled laundry, I was surprised at how quickly it dried in reflected sunlight.

Yesterday we saw a film in Gibsons as part of the Sunshine Coast Art Crawl, Montrealer Luid de Moura Sobral’s Azulejos: Une Utopie Ceramique. It was fascinating and made me wistful for a place shaped in such a way. Where walking, you pass a window with the light glancing off a tile:

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Or you pause on a stone wall and notice how the lower part of the wall is faced with azulejos:

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It was too dark in the Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons to make notes while I watched the film but I did try to scrawl something in my notebook because it surprised me, coming as it did after a series of images of spaces defined by azulejos: the Lisbon underground, benches in Montreal, churches in Evora, a monastery in Brazil. I don’t remember the first part of the sentence but what I scribbled was: “utopia never properly theorized.” I remembered the doors opening and closing on those rooms of light, the stacks of painted and glazed plates on the lane out our hotel window in Evora (dinner plates I regret not buying though I did stash two small ones in my suitcase, wrapped in an unnecessary warm sweater), and the windows of antique stores with tiles from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, regal in their isolation, and I wondered what theory could possible hold such beauty?

little-dishes

years

I’d stayed with my parents in Victoria the night before my wedding and I hadn’t packed anything warm. So on that cool morning, I put on the dress — white cotton with a laced bodice, circa 1979 (which it was) — and brushed my hair, arranged the wreathe of yellow roses my mum’s friend made for me, and pulled on the old Cowichan sweater I’d left in my parents’ basement. Then I got into the Mazda pickup with my dad and we headed out for the 11’o’clock ceremony performed by a Unitarian minister wearing a Welsh fisherman’s smock at an old heritage house turned restaurant near Sidney. My groom was waiting in his Harris tweed jacket and wide corduroy pants. A tie! A belt with a big hand-forged buckle. There’s only one photograph of us because my brother said he’d take pictures and for some reason they didn’t work out. But I’ve never forgotten the day. Or where it led.

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I still have the dress, tucked away in a trunk. And that belt is still around. We have accumulated so much over the years, 37 of them. A houseful of furniture, thousands of books, 3 children, two daughters-in-law, 3 grandchildren. A houseful of memories, of sunlight and shadows (because there have been plenty of those), meals at the long pine table with friends and family members, some of them still with us and some of them gone to spirit. Last night I dreamed of my mother, that I wondered where she was and my daughter told me she’d left her at a restaurant because my mum said she loved to sit in the dusk and think about her life. My mother died in 2010 and often when I sit in the dusk, I think of her. One day my daughter will wonder where I am and maybe my granddaughter will tell her a similar story. We never leave, do we? We are always part of a story, if only someone cares to tell it.

Tonight we will sit at the table and eat duck breasts with a sauce of port and dried cherries (and maybe some rhubarb; I’m thinking that the two stalks John cut the other day would go well with the cherries). There will be Savoy cabbage from the garden and a salad of the last arugula. To drink? A gorgeous Desert Hills Gamay in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my 50th birthday, 11 years ago.

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The glasses are still intact, though so much of the world has broken and frayed. Not us, not yet, and I look forward to the first sip of the Gamay, late summer distilled in a high-shouldered bottle, the first taste of the duck in its silky sauce, while the dusk gathers around us and the years contain our lives, the stories we still remember and tell.

Mendel’s tools

Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Tool Box”; it’s included in my book, Red Laredo Boots. In it, I looked at a box John’s grandfather had made in England for John’s father Ben when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. John’s grandfather had been a cabinet maker and he filled the box with handtools, little tins of grease, and he’d even made a level; I think he imagined his gift to his son would be very useful for a life in a new country. The box became a catchall for the things a family accumulates and when I examined the tools within it, I realized that some of the chisels had been used to pry open paint cans. Was the level ever used? Probably not. I keep it on my desk now and take it in my hands from time to time for the comfort of its shape. We built our own house and I learned to use a big level when we were pouring footings and raising walls. It gives me pleasure to see that my desk is level — that means my readings all those years ago were accurate and that our building is sound.

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I’m working on an essay now about Gregor Mendel, the Moravian-Silesian monk and gardener who is considered to be the father of modern genetics. This essay was actually born out of another, “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long sprawling piece about love, coyote music, quilts, mathematics, orchards, and genetics. And I couldn’t seem to knit the parts about genetics in neatly enough. So out they came and I’ve been working on them in a different essay. I realized that the thing that really interested me when I visited St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, in the Czech Republic, where Mendel was a member of the Augustinian order, was the case of his pruning tools.

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They are so elegant, with their brass and wooden fittings. And they were obviously cared for. They tell me something about the man who used them — his patience, his diligence. So I’m looking at them, letting them talk to me, and we’ll see what happens. I brought peas back from the little shop in the museum at the Abbey of St. Thomas and kept notes (careless haphazard notes) on growing them in my garden over four years. That will be part of the essay too.

Most of all, I’m hoping that some of Mendel’s patience and care rubs off on me. I think of our pruning tools — one broken saw and one usable one; four pairs of secateurs, one pair held together with black electrical tape and one pair (I’m sorry to admit) hanging out on the fence by the garden where I was using them yesterday to cut down the fennel. A machete we found in our woods, which had probably been left by a salal cutter decades ago. John takes much better care of them than I do. He almost always returns them to their hooks in the workshop. But I get sidetracked or forgetful and leave them out in the weather.

In the top left corner of the photograph of Mendel’s tools, you can see a whetstone. It’s never occurred to me that our pruning tools should be sharpened regularly. I’ve occasionally used a knife sharpener on the edge of one pair of secateurs. Mostly I just struggle when cutting a difficult branch. Is it too late for me to learn new habits? I hope not. I remember how my father kept his hunting knives well-sharpened. In “The Tool Box”, there’s a memory of the oil he used, “a delicious smelling oil that scented the whole basement….I remember sitting on the basement stairs, listening to the blades being ground across the stone, and breathing in the heady oil.” It makes me wonder why some things — hair colour, body shape — are inherited but not the useful things, like the need to keep tools clean and honed.

Going Bush

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There’s something so satisfying about a single-edition essay. Notting Hill Editions does them. And so does Sylph Editions, in the form of the Cahier Series, published jointly with the Centre for Writers & Translators of the American University of Paris. The Series includes all kinds of interesting writing and I treasure the ones I have on my shelves.

I recently ordered Kirsty Gunn’s Going Bush, number 27 in the Cahier Series. (Her My Katherine Mansfield Project was published by Notting Hill Editions a year or two ago.) I’ve read her novellas and her wonderful rambling novel The Big Music, inspired and structured around the classical highland bagpipe pibroch. She is such an original writer, following her own beautiful sentences as they explore place and memory and carry within their syntax a lyrical and haunting music.

Going Bush is a memory of a particular kind of New Zealand bush. Not park, not fields, not farmland, not mythical forest. Bush.

That growth was everywhere, dense through my childhood and close and rotting — smelling, damp underfoot where the light couldn’t reach the matted canopy of what we called, then, ‘natives’ — those trees indigenous to New Zealand, the Matai and the Totara and the Miro as I know to call them now — only, ‘natives’ we said then, because they were not oak or pine or ash.

And it’s a memory of a kind of realization, occurring around puberty, when your body often seems to betray you, with its changes and odours, its mysteries, that a place can be a solace, even in its darkness and its stagnant water. A place of refuge for a girl alone in  her otherness in social and domestic life, in this case a family picnic when cousins turn out to be hostile and cruel.

Though the undergrowth was thick and dark, it wanted her to be inside it, wanted her to run faster and faster to find its secret river, to touch her and hold her and whisper and call, along with the bellbirds and the tuis and fantails she could hear, somewhere up there, in the dark trees, flitting in and out of the dark branches like ghost birds and spirits of ancestors with their calls like the sound of bells: Come to me, come to me, come to me.

Going Bush is a gorgeous edition, with a mixed-media work by Kirsty Gunn’s sister Merran Gunn reproduced throughout to offer a visual correlative to the text. It resembles the river the narrator is drawn to, that offers her mud and weeds and cool water:

‘Use me,’ the river bank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood like there a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her — and she had let them go.