“I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

coho.jpg

On the weekend, friends came to dinner and after we’d eaten, just as they were preparing to leave, one friend asked me if I believed in an afterlife, a consciousness after this one. The way he looked at me, I knew that he knew what my answer would be. Not that I have a clear answer or a sense of an afterlife that corresponds with the Christian one I was raised to believe in — though I found myself quite firmly rejecting that Christian belief system when I was ten and spent an afternoon looking at photographs of the liberation of Belsen. I remember asking my parents how a just god could allow such things to happen — the Shoah as well as other events in human history — and they were at a loss to answer. And I knew that the god I had been raised to believe in didn’t — or couldn’t possibly — exist. (Not as I was taught he existed. And in those years, it was clear that god was male.) Because my friend is a poet as well as a commercial fisherman, I knew that he would understand me if I used the language of metaphor and the cycles of nature to try to explain what I thought happened after we die. Every year, about this time, we go to the salmon-bearing creek near us to watch the coho salmon excavate their redds and lay their eggs. They have come so far to do this and they find the creek — a small one, emptying into a long lake eventually draining into the ocean — they were born in. After the females have laid their eggs and the males have fertilized those eggs, the salmon die and eagles, coyotes, bears, wolves, and other animals feed on what’s left of the bodies. To see the live bodies hover in the water where generations of fish have undulated, expelled eggs or milt, died, and then emerged from the gravel to develop into an organism capable of swimming as far as Alaska, only to return again,purposefully and deliberately, is to think of life as everlasting. Not necessarily our own but what outlives us is part of us. We’re part of what goes forever. We’ve done our best to both damage these cycles (I’d like to think we haven’t done it willfully but that’s perhaps generous) and to ensure their vitality and endurance.

This is not a post about religion or dogma. It’s about how we live and how we accommodate death and rebirth. I’m just home from yet another test to determine how long I will continue on the earth in this state — sentient, lively, alert; and the news today was reasonably good — and when I open a file of the work I am currently revising, I see that my own preoccupations have been with consciousness and what it means for some time now. My whole life. And the lives that came before me and those that will continue after me. Fish, faithful dogs, beloved family members, the tiny remnants of birds who’ve hit the windows, friends who departed in joy or in pain…I told my friend I believed in ghosts and that I saw them regularly. I do. And I’m grateful for that.

“I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

On my desk, folders and envelopes of papers, some of them in pieces – the remains of my grandmother’s life in Alberta, before she met my grandfather and after. She married him in 1920, a widow with 8 children and another buried in the cemetery where her first husband and her younger brother are also buried. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do. My grandmother is in my hands, my body, the way I peg sheets to the line on a summer morning, or chop garlic for my own version of česnečka. I am the mother of sons and a daughter who are her great-grandchildren, though they only know her through a couple of photographs, some stories, a long folk-song of food they hear when I sing her praises: her soup, her striky, her rich perogies, cabbage rolls tender as butter.

knives and irony

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All morning I’ve been looking for a knife. A fish knife my father once gave to one of my sons. I thought it was here. For a time it was on my desk and then on the bookshelves in my study. I’m in the process of revising an essay named for it and I want to look at it again and see if I’ve remembered it accurately. But now I can’t find it. While I was looking, I saw my ulu knife, bought in Yellowknife in the spring of 2008. It hangs on a bracket near the sink and I’ve seen it so many times I no longer see it, if that makes sense. I use it sometimes for mincing garlic in large quantities, or herbs; its rocking motion makes such work a pleasure. The uluit are women’s knives, used for skinning animals and cutting meat. They fit the hand beautifully and this one is well-balanced. I love the brass tang, the dry feel of the caribou antler handle, and how something designed well doesn’t need to be changed. Uluit date back to at least 25oo BCE.

So I found a knife I wasn’t looking for but the one I want to hold and measure, well, it’s disappeared.

You kept your knives sharp. Occasionally I’d sit on the basement stairs and hear you running them along a whetstone kept in a wooden box. I loved the smell of the oil, which I inhaled like perfume. There were hunting knives, each with its special sheath you made. My brothers received knives for gifts but they never took care of them the way you did. There was a thin knife for cleaning fish right on the spot so the guts could be tossed back to the water. And another knife, very sharp, with a blade suitable for filleting and a serrated part for taking off a head or tail. It could cut through thick bone. It has a homemade handle of some kind of antler, shaped to fit the hand, and neatly rivetted. You gave it to my second son, thinking him a kindred soul. The thing is, he isn’t. He doesn’t care about fishing (you told me you’d like him to have your inflatable boat) but cares about getting along – when you talk, he listens, and you’ve mistaken listening for a shared passion for fishing. (He won’t eat fish.) I always wanted to be taken seriously, wanted to learn fly-fishing, but I also wanted to defend my ground, say my piece, and you couldn’t bear anyone talking when you thought yours should be the only voice in the conversation. My son doesn’t care about the knife, he left it on a shelf, but I care about it and have it on my desk so I can run my thumb along the rough chalky end of the antler handle and think about the places the knife might have been – the Cowichan River; lakes strung like stars up the spine of Vancouver Island, one even called Stella; rivers and lakes in the north; rarely the chuck, but even the lakes near my home on the Sechelt Peninsula where you’d take my children out in your inflatable boat and teach the patience of the hook. The patience must have come with age because I remember only your temper, your irritation at being asked for something, the bitter words about ingratitude. Yet they sat with you for hours and thought you a perfect grandfather.

“Can a bridge be an anchor?”

On Sunday evening, we had the pleasure of hearing Diego El Cigala fill the Chan Centre with Spanish flamenco, from slow beautiful ballads to salsa that had everyone in the building on their feet, stamping and clapping. His band was sensational. He was sensational, with a rich voice and an extraordinary energy. Before the concert, we attended a discussion, “Opre Roma: Rise up Roma”, between Gina Csanyi-Robah of the Canadian Romani Alliance and Dr. Shayna Plaut of the Global Reporting Centre on contemporary Roma resistance and empowerment. It was interesting to see video clips of Roma children in Europe, in places we’ve traveled (and that I wrote about in Patrin), overcoming the systemic discrimination that has marginalized them for centuries, and then to hear Diego demonstrate, with passion and elegance, that rising.

diego.jpg

And now I’m back to work on the collection of essays tentatively scheduled for publication in September, 2017. In our discussions about the essays, the publisher suggested some specific areas needing work. This kind of clear editorial attention almost always sends me directly out into the field of the material at hand and I begin to see how to reframe the work. I spent most of Saturday revising one essay and what I loved was discovering that a fragment in my “Current Work” file actually fills the gap the publisher had identified. The fragment was a series of questions asked of applications for homesteads, circa 1910, and I found myself answering those questions from my particular point in history.

11. What is the size of your house, of what material, and what is its present value?

In the list of structures on the SE quarter of Section 10 Township 29 Range 20 Meridian 4, Joseph Yopek has a shack 20 x25, partly on the street between blocks 51 and 52. It is valued at $150. Other houses described? Holes in the ground with sod for roofs. A dugout in the riverbank (my grandmother’s brother). I try to imagine these dwellings, how 11 people could sleep in such a small house. How they could study their school lessons (of which English would have been an important one), how laundry was done (several children in diapers at any one time), clothing sewed and mended and how much light there was during the long cold winters. In a town history of Drumheller, I find a description of a house that sounds almost like it could have been theirs, though the woman remembering is called Bond.

World War 1 started in August, 1914, and on October 2 my second baby was born. We called him Tom. He was only a few weeks old when my husband was laid off, so we had to leave our home because it was a Company house. My husband got lumber and built a small place on the School Section nearer the town, similar to those being built by a number of other people. The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and, as at the Sterling, had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall. As soon as our house was livable we moved in. Gumbo was very bad on the roads here when it rained and we always struck across the field to the railroad track during wet weather, otherwise you could lose your footwear in the gumbo.

Meanwhile, there is concern that a local man can’t get grazing rights to the land and a mayor complaining that the squatters paid no taxes for services.

I am excited about this work and the prospect of making the essays better. This photograph is one of the anchors I keep at hand because it’s central to one of the pieces I’ll be revising this week. (I know the metaphor is a little unruly. Can a bridge be an anchor? I hope so.)

bridge over Rosebud River.jpg

 

the best way to eat an orange, after MFK Fisher

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Probably the best way to eat an orange is to pick it dead-ripe from the tree, bite into it once to start the peeling, and after peeling eat a section at a time.

Some children like to stick a hollow pencil of sugarcandy through a little hole into the heart of an orange and suck at it. I never did.

Under the high-glassed Galeria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan before the bombs fell, the headwaiters of the two fine restaurants would peel an orange at your table with breath-taking skill and speed, slice it thin enough to see through, and serve it to you doused to your taste with powdered sugar and any of a hundred liquors.

—from An Alphabet for Gourmets by MFK Fisher

Because the last two months have been filled with uncertainty — political, and also personal, as I undergo a seemingly endless battery of tests for an ongoing health situation (what else to call it?) — I’ve been thinking about other Octobers, other Novembers. There was the October we went to Prague and Brno and Vienna, under grey skies, and wandered the beautiful streets, stopping for glasses of sparkling wine or tiny cups of espresso. And the November in Venice, also under grey skies, when we walked along the canals and looked at Madonnas in one dark chiesa after another. The Octobers and Novembers we stayed home and didn’t have a single doctor appointment. The Octobers we went to meet new babies (and to be honest, we did this in early October this year too, before the scary tests began…).

Because the mandarin oranges are now in the grocery stores, I’m reminded of Paris, walking with my friend Anik (pushing her little son L. in a stroller) along a street near the Bastille and smelling — honestly smelling! — oranges, which had just arrived from Sicily. We followed our noses. A woman was selling bright clementines from a table, along with roses and carnations, but we only bought the clementines, a bag of them, chosen from the pile. There’s almost nothing as lovely as a fresh clementine, quickly peeled, and eaten one section at a time. And then another, another, until the bag is finished, and you feel like you’ve eaten sunlight for the warmth inside you.

there was good light then

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I remember hearing Leonard Cohen’s songs for the first time. I was in grade ten so it must have been 1970. I’d already discovered his poetry. The first poem I memorized, took to my heart, was his “There Are Some Men”:

There are some men
who should have mountains
to bear their names to time.

Grave markers are not high enough
or green,
and sons go far away
to lose the fist
their father’s hand will always seem.

I had a friend:
he lived and died in mighty silence
and with dignity,
left no book son or lover to mourn.

Nor is this a mourning-song
but only a naming of this mountain
on which I walk,
fragrant, dark and softly white
under the pale of mist.
I name this mountain after him.

And the songs, oh, those songs. I was immediately taken by the voice, how it caressed the lyrics. And how the lyrics were so beautiful to a girl of 15, trying to figure out about poetry and why it made her feel she knew a different language, one created for her alone. These were poems but they were also songs and how was that possible? (This was the time of Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and even if you liked those songs, it was hard to think of them as literary texts as well, capable of leading you into the world, a traveler, an explorer. Or maybe I mean that the person they led into the world was not the person I wanted to be, knew I was on the cusp of being.)

And it has to be said: he was devastatingly sexy. The voice and the face.

All these years later, he feels like he’s been a companion. Someone thinking deeply and writing beautifully and remembering.

Days of Kindness

Greece is a good place
to look at the moon, isn’t it
You can read by moonlight
You can read on the terrace
You can see a face
as you saw it when you were young
There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
and it manifests as tears
I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world

Hydra, 1985

And now it seems he was a prophet too. I’ve hesitated to write about the recent American election results. It matters, of course it does. Power has shifted and someone utterly unsuited (poor impulse control, no record of public service, a history of dreadful employment practices, just to begin the list) to lead one of the most militaristic and  powerful countries on earth has been elected by people who believe him to have their interests at heart. I don’t know what to say. But it turns out Leonard Cohen was predicting it all along. (And was he being ironic or hopeful when he said this:

From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Ironic, I think.)

But yes, predicting it all along:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

As he said in that first poem I memorized (before Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, before Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), “Nor is this a mourning song.” He lived a good life and he gave us so much. I’m looking at a mountain as I write, “fragrant, dark and softly white/under the pale of mist”, and although it already has a name, this morning it’s for him.

“from a shore wind I drifted out”

After a run of stormy days, I see blue sky to the south, and pink light filtering through the Douglas firs to the east of the house. And just now, doing something else, I saw this little sculpture, a gift from someone long dead. It’s from Nunavut, created out of caribou antler, and it’s on a low table by a window. How many times I pass it in a day, never looking. But this morning I looked and saw the perseverance, the hard work, and (yes) the joy of this hunter in wild seas.

antler carving.jpg

So today I will remember this moment, seeing the small kayak, the whales, no matter what else is going on in the world — and that election just south of us does feel like the world, for the way it fills the newspapers, the airwaves, our conversations, our every waking moment, whether we want it to or not.

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.

My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.
To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

Song from the Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo), The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, compiled by Knud Rasmussen

And faded through the brightening air

ant in apple blossom
When I was a university student, in the last century, I began to read the work of William Butler Yeats. The girl in me loved the early poems with their Celtic mysticism and their languorous, well, Romanticism:
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
But the scholar in me was perhaps more drawn to the late poems. In them I found political engagement, a sense of regret at the passing of time, and an extraordinary piercing summing up:  “Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
But this morning I found this beautiful setting of his poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”(from the 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds), and I was that girl again, briefly. But also someone who recognizes how ghosts do visit, girls with apple blossom in their hair, or long-lost friends, parents, even the golden dog I see out my window, sniffing the new logs in the woodshed (and who has been dead for 7 years), and how it can be comforting to welcome them back, even for a brief moment. And given how I am feeling these days — reminded every minute of my own mortality — I want those old ghosts to visit, want all the memories to fill my house (and woodshed), and so I will listen to Christy Moore over and over again:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.