silence in the long halls

geometry of the end

A few days in the Eastern Townships, ambling along verdant roads with soft fields, glimpses of water, little secret vales around corners, ancient farmhouses on stone foundations. We stayed in a B&B in Austin (the splendid Auberge les Pinyon Verts) and when we said how much we enjoyed the cheese in the morning omelette, our hosts suggested we visit the nearby Abbaye Saint Benoît Du Lac, the Benedictine monastery where the monks make cheese and cidre. We could take a tour, they said, or simply go to the shop. Or better yet, take a tour and stay for the Eucharist mass at 11, celebrated with Gregorian chant. I wanted to understand the Latin but the voices and the acoustics were not in harmony. Ora et Labora – pray and work. 

I was interested to read about the labour involved with the creation of the Abbey. A French Benedictine architect designed the buildings and the structures are solid and beautiful. Stone and brick of harmonious colours. Tiles and elegant woodwork. The proportions are perfect. I thought of Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man as I looked at replicas of the architectural plans. The Vetruvian Man demonstrates the essential symmetry of the human body and by extension, the universe. I suspect God is the guiding symbol of the Abbaye Saint Benoit Du Lac and we have to imagine his body in the airy spaces of this ediface.

eplans

The abbey is one of those tranquil places where time stands still. Too still maybe — the population has dropped significantly in recent years and I can’t imagine a young man engaged with the issues of the world wanting to enter an order so self-contained and well, insular. Maybe I’m wrong. But sitting in a pew, listening to the voices—thin and reedy, most of them; not the robust voices of young strong men—and seeing the monks stand and sit in response to the spiritual directives, it didn’t seem to me to be a community that would grow and change with the times. I hope I’m wrong.

behind bars

But it was a lovely place, the structures echoing the beauty of the lakes and small mountains, the trees, the architecture of the sky. There was so much there, the apple trees pruned and productive, the wheels of cheese in the shop, the jars of confiture. There was silence in the long halls, the tiles perfectly laid and polished. I understand wanting to find that silence and within it, to find God. At least I think I understand that silence is a place as beautiful and holy as any. But the world is not so quiet, not these days, and some of the noise comes from those needing us to hear them, to take action, to open our hearts to those requiring something other than prayer and silence. Is that why some of the literature about the order tells us the population is 50 or 40 or 30? Numbers that are perhaps optimistic and hopeful but in decline?

We left with a bottle of the sparkling cider and some cheese. A special confiture of pears and ginger. And for me, an unresolved feeling about the utility of faith, or the contemplative kind at least, in times that ask us to be of use to the planet and each of its lively inhabitants.

 

Overheard

Yesterday, on the 257 bus from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver, a group of girls in their early teens sitting behind me: “Remember when that lady sprayed my hair and for days after I smelled like a grandma?” Listening, I thought to myself, We smell? I surreptitiously sniffed my arm. Chanel 19. Is that a grandma smell?

Who cares, today in Ottawa, as we spend time with our grandson Arthur and his parents. Walking near the National Gallery this morning, Arthur spotted Maman, the remarkable sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Araignée, he shouted as he raced to stand underneath, looking up at the eggsac.

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What did your grandmothers smell like, I asked my son as he drove us home from the airport last night. One of cigarettes, he said (that was my mum), and the other of Yardley’s talc (John’s). So I guess we do smell. I weeded and then had a shower and in a little while we’ll sit under the vine over the pergola we helped build a few years ago. There are cardinals and tomatillo plants as tall as my shoulders (and extra seedlings for me to carry home next week). We’ve read a few books already (a Rupert story, a new book featuring a moose, a beaver, and a bear), Arthur and me, and I hope we’ll read many more.I suspect there’s room in a child’s memory for more than smell. Books, cinnamon buns, silly rhymes, stories that begin, “Once upon a time…” or “When your daddy was a boy…”

 

in any way possible

new dawn

This morning I was up early, just before 5, to work on the corrections of Euclid’s Orchard. Before I got out of bed, I heard the dawn chorus begin, the sound coming in the window as it does every year. I wrote about this in my essay “Love Song”, included in The Summer Book, which had one of its launches yesterday at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver, an event I’d loved to have participated in but we’re leaving tomorrow morning for 10 days in Ottawa so I couldn’t get away so soon before our departure.

On an early summer morning, I wake to the sound of Swainson’s thrushes. Beyond my bedroom window, beyond the house, they sing where the woods begin. And there are robins, vireos, the long whistle of a varied thrush. My curtains are rough white linen and they filter light, the light at dawn, coming from the east, pink and golden as the sun finds its way over Mount Hallowell. My husband sleeps closest to the window and he pulls the curtains aside to let in more song. There is honeysuckle blooming, and dog roses, trumpet vines. Hummingbirds bury themselves in the flowers. The pink throats of the tree frogs inflate, a loud vibrato close enough to touch.

This morning I listened and then came downstairs to work at the dining table (my desk is too cluttered…), reading and correcting, and stopping now and then to think about how an essay began or to wonder if others would remember a particular event the way I do. I confess to a little trepidation about this book. It’s very personal. But when I wrote at least three of the essays, I was in a strange place; I was living between worlds, between the living and the dead. I know that sounds dramatic but it felt very much that way in the fall as I waited for the results of tests and scans, all undertaken because of the suspicious nature of some nodules in my lungs. For a time, it was thought that they might be metastases, which meant that every effort had to be made to determine either the location of primary cancer or to rule it out. I am grateful that the results were so good and that I am actually very healthy (I always took my robust health for granted) and in a profound way I am grateful also for the time I spent in the company of ghosts. I learned things. I finished things. My daughter Angelica translated a line from Ovid’s Tristia for me to use as an epigraph for one section in the essay “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”:  I wish to be with you in any way possible. When I was writing the essay, I didn’t know what might be possible. I only knew I didn’t want to waste time. And this morning, getting up from the table to make coffee, I looked out to see the New Dawns cascading over a beam on the patio.  A warbler paused for a moment on the little hanging birdbath by the kitchen window. In any way possible

hold down the pages with flowers

pages

This morning, a pdf of the interior of my forthcoming book, Euclid’s Orchard. And notes about how to send the corrections. Print it out, read it, and send the corrections as pdf comments. I’ve published 12 books and every time I’m surprised by how different the text looks in the capable hands of a good designer (I mean you, Setareh Ashrafologhalai!). I love the font — the late Jim Rimmer‘s Amethyst — and I’m interested to see how the photographs, most of them old family snapshots, amplify the writing. So now I’m going to read the essays and correct my errors and hope for the best. For this book about family history, about the unwritten and strangely coded stories I’ve tried to parse, and about (of course) the role of plants in my own history and reading of the landscape, it seems fitting to use a pot of roses to hold the pages in place. It’s a sunny morning, with a soft breeze. There are hummingbirds in the honeysuckle and the robins are singing the salmonberry song. I wish there was a way to encode this music into the book, and the scent of roses.

the vernal solstice

At 9:24 this evening, the sun reaches its highest point of the year at the Tropic of Cancer. The solstice, from the Latin “solstitium, meaning “the standing still of the sun.” We’ve had such a long grey spring, with rain and low skies, but this afternoon the sky cleared and is now blue and cloudless. I’m hoping it’s not too late for beans (I’ve had to sow them three times because of slugs…) and that the tomatoes will come out of their sulk to put on some growth. The salad greens (vernal!) are lovely and so were these sprouts a few weeks ago, playing in spring grass in Edmonton.

weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG

That shadow in the bottom corner? Their grandmother, who misses them all.

 

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

—Walt Whitman

 

“go light”

twin-flower

A week ago, foxgloves, yellow violets finishing, flashes of orange on the side of the highway that I knew were Columbia lilies, flashes of orange down the bank that I knew was the native honeysuckle, hummingbirds drinking deeply from the trumpets we used to taste as children. And today, on a walk on one section of the Suncoast Trail, orchids just about to bloom (or a week or so away), pink wintergreen (the prince’s pine still in bud), the last of the bleeding hearts, salal full and creamy, little clumps of rattlesnake plantain orchids about a week away from opening and alongside, what I think are ladies’ tresses. Thimbleberry by the fast creek. Siberian miner’s lettuce. Enchanter’s nightshade. Bending down to the scent of almonds in the twinflower patch—so beloved of Linnaeus that he gave the modest plant his name.

Just to say their names, to acknowledge their persistence in a world increasingly difficult to fathom—the incivility, the violence, terrible inequities, fires, shootings, knife attacks. Just to say their names as we walk a trail so familiar, along a flank of the mountain we’ve lived by for more than half my life and almost exactly half of John’s. To say their names, to remember them in poems, in songs, in dreams:

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

—Gary Snyder, from “For the Children”

Hawkweed, ninebark, self-heal.

 

Bedtime Reading

bedtime reading, approaching summer

I always have a stack of books on my bedside table and I’m often reading three or four simultaneously. Sometimes that’s because a certain mood requires a certain book. Human Acts by Han Kang is so devastating that I can only read a few pages at a time. The prose is quiet and even lyrical and it takes a few moments to realize that you are reading about bodies putrefying in the wake of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. It’s an important book, an important record. But difficult to absorb in many ways. How an army can massacre its own citizens. Mutilate them. Refuse the bodies the right to burial by those who loved them.

And Katherena Vermette’s The Break is extraordinary. The way the narrative unfolds is like a rich and beautifully embellished textile unfolding and when you look closely, read the details closely, you realize how dark the tale. And yet there’s light—as soft and quiet as moonlight across snow or the glowing stones in a sweatlodge fire. There’s hope too, for all the characters, almost indistinguishable from love.

Birth of a Theorem by Cedric Villani was a birthday gift from my mathematician son. I’ve read it once and it bears re-reading. As any of you who read my essay “Euclid’s Orchard” will learn, math was a subject that terrified me and still gives me nightmares. Or at least it did until I decided to find out why and how that happened and what I could do to find my way into its beautiful mysteries. Birth of a Theorem takes the reader into the process of developing a theorem and in many ways it’s not unlike the process of working out a quilt design or the pattern a collection of essays should take. I loved the correspondences even if the intricacies of the mathematics are completely beyond my thinking.

And The Summer Book is the new anthology of essays about the season we are just approaching (if we use the notion of astronomical summer to define the beginning…). 24 B.C. writers contributed pieces to this book and there’s huge range in the writing. Last night I read Sarah De Leeuw’s “Beige Corduroy Coat Worn Over Turquoise Bathing Suit”. A caption from a fashion magazine? Only in the imagination of a girl living in a remote town the summer before she enters grade six: “I imagine myself on a catwalk, perfect posture. The waves roll and crash on the beach north of Port Clements. The coat rides up over my bottom as I walk, an eyelid of turquoise bathing suit winking out.” My own contribution to the anthology is “Love Song”, 35 summers remembered into an essay about lakes and duck itch and picnics and birdsong. It’s an essay that gathers all my loved ones, the living and the dead,  together for a grand dinner, even the dogs.

Here they are, with their dishes of tomatoes, prawns, skewers of chicken, the familiar brownies dusted with icing sugar. They are standing on the patio where the young robins are learning to fly, where the lizards cross from woodshed to stones in the blink of an eye.