the physics of candles

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.

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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?

 

our allotted threads

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:

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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
till midnight,
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

after the Solstice

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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.

Herakleitos in the snow

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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.

to see beauty, to be shaken

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:

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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

“the earliest moon of winter-time is not so round and fair”

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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.

“I go to meet it at the edge of the light”

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The other day John was in the back woods looking for possible Christmas trees. We usually cut ours from the designated area up on the mountain where we walk regularly. There’s a power line up there and (free) permits are issued for tree cutting under the lines. (We always cut our tree on December 23 and let it sit in the woodshed overnight, bringing it to dress on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.) But because we’ve had a fair bit of snow lately, we’re not sure we’ll be able to get to those trees when our family members join us for Christmas so John is looking for other options. There’s a bluff back in the woods and he said that it’s covered with elk droppings. An hour ago I went out to cut (frozen) kale for my morning smoothie, taking a flashlight with me because it was still almost completely dark. I heard a strange sound, a bleat, a whistle. And it was close. Then I heard crashing. The elk had been on the trail behind the garden shed and heard me, I guess — a solitary woman in a dressing gown and flip-flops, gathering kale behind the fence the elk have been known to stand beside to gaze longingly at the garden bounty. The garden is fenced with black mesh, 8 feet high, and although an elk could easily tear it to bits, they don’t. The best theory I’ve heard is that they can’t see it and it freaks them when they touch it with their faces. They’re quick learners. And, fingers crossed, they’ve never broken the fence, though they’ve torn grapevines from the side of the house, eaten fig leaves (wouldn’t you?), broken apple branches and eaten uncaged roses to the ground. So this morning, the sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, probably a dozen of them — we’ve seen a herd recently at various points between us and the Kleindale corner and I think this must be the same one.

Before I went out for kale, I was working in my study, drawn back to the novella I keep putting aside for other things. This morning, my character was spreading her maps on the side of the Deadman River, in the shadow of the hoodoos, inspired about some discoveries she’d made about women and the way their writing echoes the landscapes they love. How they carry these landscapes in their bodies and write from that experience. And while I was doing this, the elk were out just beyond the house, sleeping maybe. (I’ve seen most of a herd lying down on the grass below the Hydro Line near us, one cow keeping watch while the others rested.) I’ve felt so excited to be writing these mornings, before the sun comes up, in the dark, the little lamp on my desk hovering over my computer.

How Poetry Comes To Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

                      –Gary Snyder

Exactly.

“Was that a wren?”

Most mornings, a winter wren comes to my study window. It creeps along the cedar trim around the window, searching for insects. It darts in and out of this little birdhouse.

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No bird has ever nested in this house but in winter, the wrens (and if you’re a twitcher wondering why I’m calling them winter wrens instead of Pacific wrens, I know they’ve been reclassified but old habits die hard. And the wrens don’t care what we call them. They know who they are…), anyway (to pull this sentence back into some form of grammatical coherence), the wrens take refuge from the cold inside its small confines. Once I was at my desk at twilight and saw 6 of them enter, all of them coming from different directions. When we see them or hear them on our walks, or hunting our woodpile for insects, we usually see just one. If there are two, they aren’t companions but rivals. That’s what the song is about. Or at least that’s my best guess.

The wren moves through my novella named for it (Winter Wren) the way these birds move through our woods. You see them, you don’t; you hear them, then there is silence.

The sun was beginning to set. Tom slumped in his chair, his eyes filled with the sky. He had watched the sun for more than fifty years, watched weather of every temper over seasons too many to count. Was that a wren? Yes, and another there, just by the path. Like mice, they darted and scurried in the bush. One hopped onto the vertebra and there it was, the long song, loud and true. It looked right at him, eyes bright as glass. He wanted to say something to it but nothing came, his voice wasn’t there. Passage of song, the bright eyes. He felt drool on his chin and tried to wipe it with his wrist but his hands were too cold. Grace called out was he alright and with supreme effort, he waved his arm, Yes, yes.

This morning the wren is hunting. The sky is grey, there’s snow on the ground, and winter is truly approaching. 10 days until the Solstice, the time of year the wren comes into its own. Wren ceremonies are rich and various. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the hunting of the wren takes place on the feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day. There are also rituals associated with the wren on the day before the Solstice — December 21 — when a wren is hunted and killed to represent the death of the old King or Sun and the birth (or return) of the New. The wren appears in various west coast Indigenous belief systems as a transformer (the old sun, the new?) and an emblem of great strength.

Today I’ll make the white chocolate fruitcakes we love, rich with dried Montmorency cherries, dried mango, Calimyrna figs, and hazelnuts, and I’ll watch for wrens. We have a beautiful piece of glass, made by our friend June Malaka, hanging in our big south-facing window, and the world through it swirls and tilts. Anything could happen. Anything might.

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scraps in winter

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Late Middle English (as a plural noun denoting fragments of uneaten food): from Old Norse skrap scraps; related to skrapa to scrape. The verb dates from the late 19th century. — from Oxford online

Small detached piece of something, fragment, remnant, (pl.) odds and ends, useless remains… — from Concise Oxford 1973-74 (my copy bought for university)

I’m thinking about scraps and fragments and, yes, remnants. I just made a comforter for the crib we’ve recently bought for visiting grandbabies. We have a smaller portable crib which has been fine until now but babies grow and this crib has the added feature of converting to a toddler bed. Grandson Arthur will come for Christmas and I thought I’d use some scraps of quilt batting to make a crib-size comforter. And then I wanted to make a cosy cover for it. I had enough blue striped flannel for one side so I found a remnant of that pink print at the wonderful Dressew on Hastings Street in Vancouver the other day. And sewing, I thought of all the quilts I’d pieced together at the kitchen table, all the remnants and scraps that somehow became something larger than themselves. I don’t like waste. I have baskets and bins of little pieces of fabric and I love to find new functions, new meanings for them.

It’s the same with writing. I’ve been revising the essays that will form a collection called Euclid’s Orchard, to be published next September. One of the essays is called “Tokens” and it is a series of linked meditations about my mother, my attempts to find out about her biological parents (she was given up at birth), and also to find out who she was all the years she was my mother. And in the process of writing about her, she was there in the room — the bottle of My Sin perfume my father brought her as a gift in (I think) 1962, still 3/4 full; her Harris tweed coat nearby, her scent still in the satin lining. Her sayings, always a little off: “Let’s play it by air.” “He was mad as a hatter.” (This, to explain someone’s anger.) “By the same token.” (For anything.)

Winter is a good time for thinking about scraps, fragments. The Ptolemaic scrap of papyrus with three lines from Book 20 of the Odyssey that don’t exist in other versions of the poem. Unfinished music. Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems. The Archimedes palimpsest, which I remembered this morning: years ago I read about the cleaning of a 13th c. prayer book that contained (partly erased but recoverable by delicate conservation practices) two treatises by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist (and astronomer, inventor…) who lived from around 287 B.C. until around 212. There’s so much still hidden, so much to be discovered, often in fragments, like the lines of the Odyssey, to offer us moments of the world before us.

The other night, John and I had dinner with our son Brendan who was in Vancouver for some math work at UBC — conferring with a research partner and giving a seminar. We asked for news of our grandchildren and I loved hearing how Kelly, who is 2, refers to her Daddy’s work. She calls it “counting by the vending machines.” When she and her mum and brother visit her Dad at his job (mathematics professor at a big Canadian university), they meet up at the vending machines in the lobby. And math? Well, it’s a kind of counting.