the thing with feathers

primroses

We were in Vancouver on Sunday night. We’d gone to see Jordan Tannahill’s superb play Concord Floral at the Roundhouse and then we met with others for dinner at a Greek restaurant. We talked, ate well, drank retsina, and then John and I returned to our hotel. I looked at news on my tablet and read about the atrocity in Quebec City. I kept reading, trying to make sense of it. A young man goes into a mosque and shoots people at prayer? In what country could something like this happen? Not mine; please, not mine.

But it was. For the past few months we’ve thought violence and intolerance lived elsewhere, most recently, even until Sunday night, south of the border in particular, and that we were somehow a kinder gentler nation.

I don’t know what to say. Words seem too small and meaningless in the face of what happened. We will keep on doing what we do. We’ll try for goodness, for kindness, and we’ll try to do something practical too. You are what you do. And there will be something.

For now, a poem.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

–Emily Dickinson

a great loveliness of ghosts

Since the beginnng of January, I’ve been swimming three times a week, sometimes four. There’s a pool and gym at the local high school and for years my children took lessons there. We’d go sometimes on winter weekends, especially when the power was out for a few days, as was more common in those years. (There’s a new kind of wire now running along the Hydro poles and we don’t have those long outages any longer, though we still have a few days here and there when the power goes out and we resort to lamps, a Coleman stove).

But the pool. I don’t much like chlorine and I don’t exactly like the notion of swimming back and forth without much purpose. Whatever it was that happened to me after my bout of pneumonia in late August had some unexpected side effects. One was pain in my right knee. Sometimes it was too severe for me to go for the long walks we like to take most days. It didn’t occur to me until quite late in the fall that swimming might alleviate the pain or at least allow me movement. And then it was Christmas so I didn’t bother looking for my bathing suit and figuring out the pool schedule, though by then John had begun to swim a couple of mornings a week. Home he’d come with news of the world — or least news of the world of Pender Harbour retirees.

So I began to join him in early January. There’s something that happens a few laps in. My mind clears, I find my way in my breathing and in the water itself (because water can resist you if you don’t find where you should be in it), and some deep thinking begins.

I’ve been thinking about what happened to me in the fall, why I felt, with the uncertainty of my health situation, that I was between worlds. At night the sky shimmered with stars and I wanted to be among them. My dreams changed. I saw things in my daily life, just out of the corner of my eye. People I knew long ago. People who’ve died. It was comforting in a way. Whatever happened, there would be company. I saw my mother in dreams a few times. I thought of Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, “the realm and region of the Men of Winter”,  and how he found his mother. She told him she died not of any true illness but of loneliness for him. And reading Book Eleven just now, A Gathering of Shades, I remember all over again why I love Robert Fitzgerald’s work with this great poem: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” If they are lonely for us, so are we, for them.

I am grateful that the worst hasn’t happened (or been diagnosed). I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry on with my life, which I’ve always loved. But I think I’ve learned things about what waits for me. I had such clarity in the fall. I hope I don’t lose that. I knew what I wanted to do with my time on earth. I knew what was important. I wrote and sewed and planted a hundred tulips. I fed the birds with such tenderness, because what if it was my last fall?

In 2013, in mid-winter, we had to have our septic field rebuilt. Because we’d made our big vegetable garden over the field, we had to dig out everything we could — raspberry canes, gooseberry bushes, roses growing there because the fence protected them from deer and elk, an apple tree, huge perennial herbs, bulbs of every sort. We dug things up and put them into temporary pots and then the man who was doing the rebuilding, a gardener himself, lifted the soil into big heaps outside the garden area with his backhoe. He scraped up every last teaspoon of rich earth. And after he’d made the new drainfield, we worked out where we’d put new beds, all to be framed with recycled cedar boards from old decks and various projects, the paths over the drainlines so if there was trouble, we’d know exactly where to find it. Then Doug scooped the soil back with the bucket of his backhoe, smoothing it into long barrows in the areas between the lines. It took some weeks to build those boxes, to replant what was waiting, and to try to establish the garden again. One day, easily a month after we’d replanted everything we’d taken out, I dug a hole for a new rose.  And here’s what my shovel brought up from under the earth:

from underground.jpg

There’s an amazing scene in Book Eleven of the Odyssey when Odysseus meets his old comrade Akhilleus.

            Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t change my life on earth for anything. Not yet. But I have some sense of entering the great system of rivers surrounding the underworld: the Acheron (river of woe), the Cocytus (river of lamentation), the Phlegethon (river of fire), the Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took vows), and the Lethe (river of forgetfulness). I’ve always loved rivers. And having dreamed of my mother and others I’ve loved and lost, I understand what Odysseus meant when he said, “But my heart longed, after this, to see the dead elsewhere.”

after the champagne corks flew

If you heard champagne corks popping yesterday, around 4 p.m., it was us, celebrating the good results of my latest scan. We’d met with my specialist in North Vancouver and he was very clear in his assessment that the nodules under scrutiny are not metastases as first suspected. That scan, a little harrowing, was thorough. So we left his office and went into a bar nearby, ordering two small bottles (the single-size serving) of sparkling wine and to be honest, the bottles had screw tops, not corks. But it was lovely to touch glasses and breath huge sighs of relief.

There’s so much to do. My publisher and I are beginning the process of thinking about a cover image for Euclid’s Orchard., due out in September. I believe that the book will be designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai, who also designed Patrin. I love her sense of space, her ideas for both cover and page, and look forward to seeing what she does with this collection of essays. I put the manuscript together in the fall, when I was recovering from double pneumonia and was undergoing all sorts of tests for other possible things. I knew it was important not to waste time so I set myself the task of finishing four essays in various stages of completion after Mona at Mother Tongue asked me for a nonfiction manuscript. One of the essays, the title piece, was ready, thanks to Josh MacIvor-Andersen who edited it for Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, available in April. But the others were scrappy, messy, shapeless. Many nights I got out of bed and came down to my desk to sit in the absolute quiet and puzzle away at what it was I wanted the essays to do. I wanted them to explore territory, to shine small lanterns onto dark pathways threading through the lost landscapes of my family’s history. They’re personal and sometimes I wondered — still wonder — at the value of writing that terrain into being. But I also believe that we do the work we’re called to do and that was the material agitating to be noticed and shaped.

Today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. I began reading her in high school and I remember how much I loved her novels, Mrs. Dalloway in particular. There was everything in it. Later I discovered A Writer’s Diary and lost myself in it. Each generation has its Woolf biography, or two; and for mine, it was Quentin Bell’s. He was her nephew and his sense of her time, her relationships, her houses — so intimate, and beautifully circumspect at the same time. I’ve read later biographies, notably Hermione Lee’s, and other books about Woolf. But I like best her diaries, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, and her letters.

Whenever we go to London, we stay in Bloomsbury, where Woolf often lived, and we walk from the little flat we rent at Cartwright Gardens to Marchmont Street for coffee. I love the street, with its bookstores, small hardware shop with pots of flowers for local gardeners to buy, cafes, stream of people…I remember this bit from the diaries, when Woolf returned to Bloomsbury from Hogarth House:

Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?

There’s a pub we pass on our way back to the flat from dinners or concerts or plays and in March, the evenings are often mild enough for people to take their drinks to the outside tables. Walking by late, there’s a hum of conversation as one passes and I think of her then, hearing the same sound, on the same street, the air just beginning to smell of green from the nearby St. George’s Gardens.

on marchmont street.jpg

I wonder what she would have made about our current world? She would have had no time for the machinations of a pompous self-aggrandizing man tweeting his tiny vicious thoughts, I feel quite sure. It was a man like that who led her to believe that the world was not worth living in, I think. Her own demons were the world’s demons. On her last birthday, two months before her suicide in March, 1941, she recorded this is her diary:

Its the cold hour, this, before the lights go up. A few snowdrops in the garden. Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. Thats whats queer, with our noses pressed to a closed door. Now to write, with a new nib, to Enid Jones.

“The people of coming days will know”

All morning the news was of the marches in cities across the world. A form of protest, a series of statements about justice and democracy, the moving sight of rivers of people holding signs, crossing bridges. A group of people on a research boat in Antarctica, holding up their signs. The hundreds of thousands in Grant Park, Chicago, a number considered too many for a march. Closer to me, just across Georgia Strait, in Nanaimo, a thousand. One for the history books, for certain

It’s interesting how we record history, the stories that are included, abandoned, neglected, overlooked, revised. I was talking to my older son this morning — well, talking to his family! His wife Manon and their son Arthur, who remembered his grandparents from his Christmas visit and who blew kisses cheerfully — about the stories remembered and handed down by Indigenous people in British Columbia. Forrest is teaching a survey course in B.C. history and I wondered if he knew a story recorded by Imbert Orchard in 1966, collected in Robert Budd’s Voices of British Columbia, in which Lizette Hall, a member of the Dakelh First Nation, remembers an incident from 1828 involving James Douglas, working then as a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk at Fort St. James, and Lizette’s great-grandfather, Chief Kwah. It’s a story her family kept intact because of her great-grandfather’s involvement. She acknowledges that the story she tells has been “retold so many times, and a thing added here and a thing added there. Well, this is the true story of what, just what did happen.”

We sometimes think that because things weren’t written down, well, then they can’t be reliable. Good stories, maybe. But history? Lizette tells her story so emphatically and clearly that I have every faith that her version is “the true story”. And remember the “discovery” of Franklin’s ships in Nunavut, in a place where Inuit people had said they were located? An oral tradition held the story of the ships carefully and accurately but not many “experts” believed the validity of something not written down. I’ve read that the Inuit called the area on Queen Maud Gulf where the Erebus was found “the Ship Place”. (What would have happened if archaeologists paid attention to such names a hundred years ago? Had paid attention to generations who told essentially the same story?) Louie Kamookak is an Inuit historian and it’s fascinating to read about his expedition to visit areas remembered by his great-grandmother Humahuk:

Humahuk’s father took one item that he later made into an ice chisel (in later years she learned it had been a dinner or butter knife). As they were looking for more objects they noticed a man-made mound the length of a full-grown person. At the end of it was a stone with strange markings on it. Seeing this, her father became afraid and they made their way down to the shore.

Once at the shore they found more strange objects: wood and a metal chain going into the sea.

The world is an intricate collection of stories, if we learn how to hear them, read them, hold them in our hands and decode their own particular language. I keep two rocks on my desk, pieces of conglomerate dense with fossils from the Sooke Formation, a geologic formation on the west coast of Vancouver Island, dating from the Oligocene, about 20-25 million years ago. The stones are heavy enough to hold paper down, literal enough to contain their own pages of marine history. I can read a little of it, recognize the marine fossils of gastropods, pelecypods, and oysters in the stones:

oligoscene fossil.jpg

That tiny remnant of oyster on the top of the stone — it’s as beautiful as any pearl. And the other stone, with its ridge of bivalve — a clam? I run my thumb along its edge. 20 million years of calcite seamed into rock.

fossil

Instead of marching in Vancouver, we hiked the Cedar Bridge Trail. (We have to be in Vancouver twice next week, and it’s several hours each way, including a ferry…) Watery sunlight, pink buds on the alders, the sound of water running down the mountain (snow-melt!), the unsettling sight of a dead coyote in a creek by the highway, and as we came down off the trail, I had a sudden idea for a quilt. I’ve been working on one that somehow didn’t end up being as beautiful as I’d hoped. Strips of deep red, various dark blue plains and prints, and white damask from old tablecloths too worn for the table (but still with usable areas). Sashing of Japanese-inspired red and white prints. The backing is a big piece of Japanese cotton, indigo-dyed. It should be beautiful but instead it’s like a whole lot of French flags. I’ll finish it of course — I’m too thrifty not to. But I’ve been wondering about starting something that I’ll love as a process and as a finished quilt. I have two vintage linen sheets, found in a thrift store some years ago, and I thought today that instead of cutting them, I’ll batik salmon on one of them, making a whole life-cycle with varying sizes of fish, and even shell buttons for the eggs. Then I’ll dye the sheet using one of the shibori techniques I tried on smaller pieces of fabric last summer. This arashi, maybe, done with an old damask cloth.

arashi

Arashi means “storm” and if I can figure out how to do it with a large (single-bed sheet-sized) length of fabric, then I think it might be lovely. When I did this batch of indigo, I loved the process but wondered afterwards about the actual colour. I think this time I’ll use more indigo and do more immersions than I did last summer. I want a deeper blue. The fish will look something like this:

button-fish

Now the snow has melted and I can be outside (if it’s not raining) with my dye vat and stick for stirring the tied lengths of fabric. I imagine them hanging on the clothesline to dry. It will be a story, told in dye and image, detailed in thread. Fish swirling and swimming, water rippling, shell buttons catching the light. A story open to interpretation.

Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords…
                                –from “The Fish”, by William Butler Yeats

solid geometry

A favourite winter pleasure: reading old New Yorkers in the hot-tub. And the one I chose at random,  from March 4, 2013, was purchased (almost certainly) at an airport enroute to Tennessee to take part in some literary events, after which we went on to New York. I remember reading Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderful review of the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick Collection, illustrated with this:

virgin-and-child-enthroned-with-four-angels

And we spent a morning at the Frick, looking at the paintings. This one, well, I agree completely with Schjeldahl when he says, “The work is only three and a half feet high, but it feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate, as if it were addressing you alone. It’s a kind of art that may change lives.”

Yes, it could change a life. You could look those calm faces and know that the world would change. They knew it. The infant reaching for the rose with its thorns, his palm already prepared, as we are prepared. The mother all-knowing. I’m not a Christian — I’ve said that before — but this painting contains so much of the iconography and the sorrow that is the groundwork of Western civilization. It’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Piero is a painter I’ve long admired. There is such solidity in his work. In reading about him over the past few days, I was somehow not surprised to find out that he wrote several treatises on mathematics: Abacus Treatise (Trattato d’Abaco), Short Book on the Five Regular Solids (Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regularibus) and On Perspective for Painting (De Prospectiva Pingendi). You can tell he’s paid attention to structure and perspective in this work. I was curious enough to try to find (translated) texts of his treatises but haven’t been successful so far. I did find a book about them, by Margaret Daly Davis, and it’s interesting reading. Much of Piero’s original writing, particularly his work on solid geometry, was absorbed into the writing of others, notably Luca Pacioli. And that might make a good winter’s project, to read and puzzle through this material. When you see this

piero-drawing

you realize why the architectural elements in the paintings are so compelling.

Years ago, we built a house. John did the drawings — and this was before computers, before software to help a draftsperson to see the solid geometry of a structure in virtual space. He drew on big sheets of paper and had them blue-printed. We still have them somewhere (part of a poet’s archive?). I couldn’t “see” the rooms he promised I’d love. I couldn’t look at the one-dimensional drawings and imagine a windowsill for plants, a corner for a bed, the space our bodies would occupy in time, over time. But he could. Somehow we got from this:

long ago.jpg

to this:

looking.jpg

to this:

home.jpg

Peter Schjeldahl describes a road trip in his youth, hanging onto a friend who drove a Vespa through Tuscany, so the two of them could see Piero’s paintings in the places they were created for — frescoes in Arezzo, the “Madonna del Parto” in a cemetery chapel in Monterchi. He said, “In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.” I understand that. Looking at the paintings in the Frick, and today looking at as many online as I can find (not the same thing at all, I know, but on a winter day on the Sechelt peninsula, this is what’s available to me), I want to do something larger than myself, something outside myself. I’m not putting it very well but I’m hoping there’s an equation in Piero’s treatise on solid geometry that might help me find a direction.

Three Friends of Winter: a novella sale

450px-three_friends_of_winter_by_zhao_mengjian

The Three Friends of Winter refer to the pine, plum, and bamboo. The origin of this term is found as early as “The Record of the Five-Cloud Plum Cottage” from The Clear Mountain Collection of literary writings by Lin Ching-hsi (1241-1310, a Sung dynasty loyalist): “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Years ago, I saw a planting of the Three Friends of Winter in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. And I thought, what a lovely idea — a companion planting of things that thrive in winter! They symbolize steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience. A little like the novella? In honour of the Three Friends of Winter, I’d like to offer my three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for the winter-friendly price of $45. For the three of them. (See my Contact page for my email address.) And I will ship them for free. Think of them as hardy green trees (and doesn’t the scouring rush on Winter Wren look like bamboo?), flourishing in snow and wind, eager to find their way to you.

three-friends-of-winter

re-enter the wind-rush of time passing

venus-de-laussel

The other day I had a lengthy scan at the B.C. Cancer Agency, part of a strange series of tests and diagnostics I’ve been engaged in for the past four and a half months. For this one, I was injected with radioactive glucose. I sat in a chair with a warmed flannel blanket over me, listening to Bach — the nursing team are kindness incarnate — while the glucose was distributed through my body. I wasn’t allowed to read. So I thought instead. Having heard this morning’s Quirks and Quarks show on meditation, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meditating. I thought of the Venus of Laussel, a limestone bas-relief sculpture I saw a few years ago in Bordeaux. She dates from 29000-22000 B.C.E. and has traces of red ochre on her breasts and abdomen. When I saw her, I knew her. There’s nothing pop about her body. She’s full and abundant. She’s one of a group of female figures from the Paleolithic period and although there’s some debate about what she’s holding — a horn of plenty? A symbol of a woman’s lunar cycles (there are 13 lines inscribed in the shape)? — I think it’s clear that she’s a fertility symbol. A woman who has likely born children and has known good meals, who has probably even provided them, from her own body and her own ingenuity.

She was a good companion for me during that part of the procedure. And when I had to lie on the narrow plank and enter the long cylinder for the scan itself — it took 20 minutes — I closed my eyes and thought of her again. It helped immensely to have her present. I brought to my mind’s eye my husband and my children, their partners, my 3 grandchildren. Then I visualized each of my books, counting them by genre — 3 collections of poetry, 3 novellas, 3 novels, 2 collections of essays, and 1 memoir. I concentrated on their covers. Each image. Could I remember the fonts used for the titles? My eyelids fluttered with effort and I almost cried. I was afraid if I opened my eyes, I would be nothing. I would be someone with radioactive glucose in her body and possibly something worse. But the goddess, her face absent of features but her body so complex and whole, stayed with me the whole time.

And when I came ouf of the cylinder, it was like being reborn. Sort of. I thought of John Berger’s observations about the Chauvet Cave:

Step outside the cave and re-enter the wind-rush of time passing. Reassume names. Inside the cave everything is present and nameless. Inside the cave there is fear, but the fear is in perfect balance with a sense of protection.