If this were the last night of the world
What would I do?
What would I do that was different
Unless it was champagne with you?
— Bruce Cockburn
If this were the last night of the world
What would I do?
What would I do that was different
Unless it was champagne with you?
— Bruce Cockburn
Yesterday John wondered aloud where candles go as they burn. Some of the wax drips down, of course, but some candles burn so beautifully clean that you turn and they’re gone, dematerialized into thin air.
We burn a lot of candles. In winter they are a way of keeping the light present and close. We found a silver candelabra in a junk shop in Faulkland years ago, its silver hidden under half an inch of blue wax. I could tell it would lovely once it was cleaned and polished so we bought it for 20 bucks. On that particular road trip, we’d been listening to Ian Tyson and I kept pressing Replay when “The Road to Las Cruces” came on: “Does the wind still blow/Out of New Mexico?/ Does the silver candelabra still shine?” So it was fitting to find what we call the Ian Tyson candelabra and when the candles burn in its shapely holders, I think of Faulkland, and New Mexico, and roads leading to mythical places. When we went to New Mexico a few years ago, we didn’t drive as far as Las Cruces but we did recognize Las Vegas from the song, and the cow boss of the big ranch nearby.
But where does the wax go? I was awake early wondering. It must be the same place firewood goes when it burns, only part of the log reduced to ash. It goes to heat and smoke, to water, to carbon dioxide. Are you awake, I asked John. Just, he said in a sleepy voice. It was 6:18 and we spent half an hour discussing the physics of candles and firewood.
And time. Where it does. Because yesterday we were caring for our grandson while his parents and his auntie Angie went down to Sechelt for sushi and Arthur spent an hour outside with his granddad, doing stuff. Throwing stones into the little pond where the yellow irises bloom so beautifully in summer. Exchanging sticks. Picking up boughs brought down by wind and taking them to the burning pile. And as I looked out the kitchen window, I thought I saw Arthur’s dad Forrest following his dad as he did those same things 34 years ago. When I told John this, he said he’d had the same sense of time. That he was outside with his son, showing him the woods, the birds, the long curve of the driveway down and out into the world.
In our bed before the rest of the household woke, I confessed that I feel I’m in a place between worlds these days. Part of it is due to the presence of part of my family, the way they occupy the rooms in the back of the house as others once occupied them, their younger selves, their brother who is in Edmonton with his own young family. When I wake in the night with the feeling that the house is full again, I have to stop to parse what that means. Who, where, when. Part of it is because I’ve been writing about my parents and my father’s family, new immigrants to Alberta in 1913, and the difficult lives they led there. They’re all mine and I hover between them, the different worlds, the time passing and accumulating, so that I don’t recognize where I am in that continuum. Part of it is because I’ve been anticipating some medical tests after the holiday and maybe I’m closer to those who’ve already passed from this world than I’m ready to admit. But I feel strangely comfortable with that thought.
When I read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, I noted this: “A stray fact: insects are not drawn to candle flames, they are drawn to the light on the far side of the flame, they go into the flame and sizzle to nothingness because they’re so eager to get to the light on the other side.” Is this what candles know, as they burn and transform to water and heat? Is this what we know as we gaze at them, wondering?
I am thinking about textiles this morning (no surprise there; my mind is often occupied with scraps and how to use them, how to turn a pile of small and easily cast aside remnants into a quilt or, well, something else). Thinking about the threads of life — having my grandson Arthur here over the holiday makes that particular thing ever-present — and the Moirai, the three Fates: Clotho, spinning the thread of life; Lachesis measuring each person’s allotted thread; and Atropos, ready to cut the thread at the end of that allotted time. I love the passage in the Odyssey when Odysseus has been recounting his adventures to an assembled party in Phaiákia and the king Alkinoös asks them to return in the morning for the ceremonies of leave-taking:
Our banquet’s ended, so you may retire;
but let our seniors gather in the morning
to give this guest a festal day, and make
fair offerings to the gods. In due course we
shall put our minds upon the means at hand
to take him safely, comfortably, well
and happily, with speed, to his own country,
distant though it may lie. And may no trouble
come to him here or on the way; his fate
he shall pay out at home, even as the Spinners
spun for him on the day his mother bore him.
— Odyssey, Book Seven
Our family will leave in a few days. I want to somehow spin something out of the rich and dense materials of living with them, amongst them. A quilt? A story? Something that manages to be both? Textiles have the capacity to do many things simultaneously. In the making of them, they satisfy at the very deepest level — and women have always known this, I think. In earlier times, women were given the work of making clothing, vessels to gather and hold food, to provide comfort and warmth using the materials at hand. For centuries it was easy to relegate this work to the realm of domestic utility but I think we know (and women have always known) how important an economic force this work has been. Continues to be in cultures where women still produce textiles (often cooperatively). This Christmas I gave Forrest and Manon a beautiful basket of woven and coloured reeds, made by Lydia in Uganda. I have on my bed a duvet cover made in a women’s workshop in India, dyed with indigo grown by the women, prepared by them, and then printed onto cotton using traditional techniques. I have a few of the blocks used in this kind of fabric printing and they’re beautiful.
Look at this ravishing coat of salmon skins with a plain and modest front and a beautifully detailed — storied? — back and you realize that women have always known that textiles can be message-carriers, they can be subversive. (“If people visited, women couldn’t look at visitors. Women sat at the fire, with their backs to visitors, but that back side was beautifully decorated—their backs said so much more than their faces.”)
I’m still in my dressing gown as I write this and looking down, this is what I see:
Years ago, a friend in Cornwall sent me this garment as a gift. It’s made of many many squares (scraps!) of salt-dyed silk. Its maker — a clothing designer called Denise Stracey – is obviously a woman after my own heart: each small remnant of some larger project has been arranged to make something utilitarian and also lovely. It’s lovely to wear. Silk against the skin, the morning made bright and lively.
I will be here
cross-legged in the dining-room,
logging triangles and diamonds,
cutting and aligning,
finding greens in pinks
and burgundies in whites
until I finish it.
There’s no reason in it.
Only when it’s laid
right across the floor,
sphere on square
and seam on seam,
in a good light—
a night-sky spread—
will it start to hit me.
These are not bits.
They are pieces.
And the pieces fit.
from Eavan Boland’s “Patchwork”, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990
So now we wait for the light. In our house, there are little strings of fairy lights draped around picture frames, windows, even the iron wine rack hanging in one corner of the dining area (with a sign saying It’s Five’O’Clock Somewhere). Last night we went to the Grasshopper Pub for supper and watched the carol ships making their way around the harbour below, small pleasure boats with lights outlining every possible angle. Years ago we used to watch the carol ships from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. In those days the boats were fish boats — the local trawlers, gill-netters, seiners — and working and charter boats. We’d all bring food and we’d stand in the darkness while the boats came into each small bay, those on board singing and those watching joining in. I wrote about it my book, Red Laredo Boots:
We sing, of course we sing, whatever song comes to mind, and no one is self-conscious in the dark. My children love “The Huron Carol” and we are usually the only ones whoknow more than one verse so we sing of the hunters and the babe wrapped in rabbit skins and the humble lodge, and I think I’ve never believed more in the nativity than at those moments, singing with them in the cold night. This holy child of earth and heaven is born today for you. The boats move slowly, like winter constellations, and we watch until they disappear.
So I have to confess that I’m not a Christian. If anything, I’m a pagan. But these moments call to us from somewhere deep and the language we use for that call is redolent of what we knew in our childhoods. And mine was within the Judeo-Christian tradition so the miracles of the season are of birth, special foods, music, candlelight, and the stories told by stars. Which, come to think of it, are among the miracles of other traditions too. The Midwinter Yule. Hanukkah. The cycles of birth and death, light in the darkness, the horned god marking the return of life to the earth.
In our house, there’s a 14 month old boy, grandson Arthur, to keep the noise level high. He has words: ball, owl, Mama, Daddy. And he likes nothing better this morning than the task of removing the alphabet letters from the fridge and then replacing them. He likes to dance. He laughs beautifully. It’s good to have children in the house at Christmas, to keep the old habits alive — the carol ships, the little lights, listening for bells as the old year winds to a close.
Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”
I was awake for a couple of hours in the night, working on one of the essays that forms the collection Euclid’s Orchard, due out from Mother Tongue Publishing in September 2017. (Contract signed and sent off!) The essay, “Fish Knife”, is about my late father. And it’s about me. Our relationship.It wasn’t entirely a happy one, though we loved each other.
In the kitchen, at 3:30 a.m., the fire was glowing. In my dark room, with the desk light angled over my work, I was filled with sorrow for that relationship. There’s a little epigraph for the piece:“How can you hide from what never goes away?” It’s Herakleitos, in Guy Davenport’s clean translation. I thought of Herakleitos a lot as I was working on this essay. Rivers, the unity of opposites (“The same road goes both up and down.”), fire, that most fundamental of elements. And my father, somehow in the room, as cranky as ever, and as curious.
This morning, the big fall of snow we had over the weekend is melting. The fire, “an everlasting fire, rhythmically dying and flaring up again,” is warming the house. And my father is no longer here.
It’s very cold right now and there’s light snow over everything. I love to see what’s familiar in a new way. A small tree, the flank of a hill, even the curve of our driveway as it leads away from the house. To walk out the front door and see the door into the workshop at the other end of the narrow deck is to see beauty, to be shaken into a new apprehension of form and function:
I never approach this window with the idea of seeing through the workshop to the other side. But yesterday I did. These old single-paned windows — the one in the door, the little arched one over John’s work bench — describe the frost perfectly.
As with all my work, whether it’s a leaf on a rock or ice on a rock, I’m trying to get beneath the surface appearance of things. Working the surface of a stone is an attempt to understand the internal energy of the stone. – Andy Goldsworthy
Ten days until Christmas and we’ve had snow, bright stars, the last super-moon of 2016, appropriately called the Long Night’s Moon. It’s time to bring out the Christmas cds, time to put on the old carols to accompany the baking (shortbreads today — trees with chopped rosemary, for remembrance; pigs and coyotes and fish with lemon zest; stars and squirrels and sinuous cats with Chamayo chile). When I was a child, singing in school choirs, my favourite seasonal song was “The Huron Carol”. Written by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary, in c.1642, the carol is a version of the Nativity story, and I know it’s an example of colonial imposition at its worst, but it’s also beautiful. It was written in Wyandot, the Huron language, and some musicians — notably Bruce Cockburn — sing it that way:
Ayoki onki hm-ashe eran yayeh raunnaun
yauntaun kanntatya hm-deh ‘ndyaun sehnsatoa ronnyaun
Waria hnawakweh tond Yosehf sataunn haronnyaun
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.
But when I remember the child in school gymnasiums, singing with classmates, with tears in her eyes (because even then music had the power to do that to me), it’s the English translation I long for. And this one, Tom Jackson, of Cree and English background, is a version to stir the most stubborn heart. This time of year, Tom travels the country, performing a concert he calls The Huron Carole to support food banks (“Defeating Hunger, Feeding the Soul” is the concert’s slogan).
The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory
On the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.
So listen to Tom Jackson, whether you’re baking shortbread or wrapping gifts or doing whatever needs doing this time of year. Your soul will thank you.