morning

On these hot days, as we wait for rain, haunt the news reports of fires and evacuations (my brother in the Nazko Valley, waiting…), I like the mornings best. There’s still a cool thread in the air, still a memory of dew. I try to do my outdoor chores by 11 or so because otherwise it’s too warm to be out in the sun. This morning, I thought of Billy Collins and his poem about morning:

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
I tried to make a record of as many moments as I could. The dragonfly on the tip of a sweet-pea cane:
dragonfly
My husband coming out of the garden with an armload of garlic:
john and metechi garlic
And a pile of the beautiful white Italian garlic already gathered:
white garlic
And always the lilies, full and buoyant in sunlight:
morning lilies
We’ve been swimming around 8, before the sun even comes over the mountain, and the lake is green and still. This morning we looked at all the tracks leading to the water’s edge: small prints of raccoons, many crows, ducks coming in and out of the water, and then the heavy tracks of elk. Of course! The creeks up the mountain must be dry and the local herd comes down to drink after the swimmers have all gone home. Do they enter the lake and stand up to their bellies in cool water? Do they swim by moonlight and in the light of those many-pointed stars? I wonder.
For dinner tonight? Something with that fresh garlic. And for dessert? John’s out picking raspberries now, the last of the crimson Willamettes, sweet with sunlight. And look who else is waiting for rain!
morning frog

Some days, she was Mrs. Nobody.

with mum on stoop

Thinking of my mum this morning, dead seven years.

Some days, she was Mrs. Nobody. How airily she’d say that, and of course it meant nothing to me. I never parsed the sentence, her too-bright smile. And some days, the Girl From Sooke, also said airily, a person who washed dishes in the one sink, putting them in the blue plastic rack, then dried them one by one with a linen cloth printed with lobsters from Peggy’s Cove or wild roses from Alberta. The Girl From Sooke, who lugged the laundry bag downstairs to sort and wash our clothing. And who polished the wood furniture with Pledge.

Mrs. Nobody sat at the kitchen table with her cup of instant coffee and an Export-A, wondering why the house never stayed clean, why it was so hard to make ends meet, why the dollars never stretched far enough. Her Redbook magazine helped her prioritize—put so many dollars aside for food, shop in bulk, can this marriage be saved?

—from “Tokens”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming September, Mother Tongue Publishing

faraway look

salal pancakes

When I returned from my swim this morning, Forrest and Arthur had picked a container of salal berries. That meant pancakes for breakfast. It’s their last day. The last day for Angelica and Craig, too; they’ll return to their lives, all of them, in Ottawa, and Victoria. And our house will be quiet again. But somehow full of the sound of voices murmuring in the evening, laughing over beer on the deck while dinner was made, calling, Who wants to go down to the lake for a final splash?

So pancakes for breakfast, kept warm on the old platter my mother gave me for Christmas two decades ago. And the memory of John’s poem, “Baby Shouts Dao”, published in an early book, An Arbitrary Dictionary, edited by bp Nichol, and full of our first years here, in the mansion of his anecdote, when we had one child, then two. (This book was published in 1984, a year before Angelica’s birth.)

Dada at loose ends
in the mansion of his anecdote
can’t hammer home

from the piece-work
room to room, scraps
of flashing, the last
closet, a good word

for Mum’s faraway look
her salal pancakes. . .

till baby shouts “dao!”
palms and delivers
the half-dead horsefly

mouths the tiny shiny screw

sits back the wrong way
on his foot tucked under
and hugs the phone.

 

morning post card from Ruby Lake, as kingfishers catch fire…

There’s a lot of cooking going on. Five pounds of spot prawns (thank you, Joe Denham!) briefly boiled, then served with tangy butter made with the succulent cloves of Metechi garlic. Sourdough bread. Salad from the garden. Last night, French fingerling potatoes dug with the help of Arthur and roasted with a bit of duck fat and olive oil to have with prime rib beef. Raspberries picked in the morning by John and topped with creme fraiche. Tonight friends are coming for barbecued sockeye and a galette of gooseberries and blueberries. Arthur helped mix the berries with some honey and lemon zest. And then he measured black beans from one container to another because he’s not yet two and he wants to do things himself.

cooking

After we cooked, we swam. We were the only ones at the little park and the water was green and lovely. Arthur looked exactly like his father Forrest looked at his age and John and I were taken back more than three decades. Same place, same water, same trees, but all of us older. A kingfisher flashed by, rattling, and settled on a limb of cedar hanging over the lake. Name the poet, I called, reciting the first verse:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
(And to be honest, I couldn’t remember the whole verse but the first two, and last two lines…) There was some delay. (My husband a poet, my son a scholar.) Think Jesuit, I said. And no, not Dylan Thomas, not Roethke. Hopkins! Selves, what I do is me. Morning light on the water, ravens klooking nearby, our bodies cool and buoyant, the prospect of coffee on the deck with lemon pound cake and the scent of tomato plants. (Wish you were here, too, Brendan, Cristen, Kelly, and Henry.)

a summer book shelf

morning visitor.jpg

A summer book shelf. Doesn’t that sound lovely? The truth is, well, messier. I’ve been trying to organize the shelves in our book room (or library, as we grandly call it). Yes, we have one. It used to be a playroom (and before that, a bedroom for the one child we had when we first built our house; by the time we moved in, another was due in two weeks….). The rooms we needed to accommodate the three children who eventually formed our family elbowed their way off that original bedroom/playroom and it seemed like a good idea to set up banks of shelves for the books that accumulated in the way books do. You think you have a few. You realize you have twice that many. Then three times that many. And so on. It’s like one of those math puzzles that hurt your brain. And if you’re like us, or at least like me in particular, you like to look things up in books rather than depending on the Internet exclusively. There’s something about taking one of the volumes of The Complete Gardener’s Collection to sit with as you drink your morning coffee, looking up one thing but then finding yourself reading something else with great interest.

So as I tried to find shelf room for some of the books in the piles that have grown against each wall in my bedroom, the surfaces in my study, some of those in the teetering columns against the bookcases themselves, I found myself thinking, Did I read that? Putting it aside to take upstairs to join the others on my bedside table. And there were others that I’ve bought and put on the lower stairs, waiting until I’d read my library books or the books I was using to research a particular thing in the novella I’m currently writing. I’ve also been gathering books about music for an essay I’ve been asked to write.

This morning, I realized the stairs were clear. The library shelves are as jammed full as they can possible be, several boxes are packed up for the thrift store or the book sale at the local library, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read in the last week. For some reason, the selection felt memorable. One title talked to another. A long gorgeous novel set in Ireland actually entered my dreams and I watched the two main characters diving off rocks into glittering water. Another made me laugh and cringe and worry about how the story would end. One or two were unsatisfying in ways that made me wonder why I seem to be outside the tide of current thinking.

Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister, for instance: very well-plotted, well-written, but I found the whole thing kind of preposterous. I respect this author but can’t warm to her work. And I’m perfectly willing to take the blame for this. I never finish one of her books and think, Oh, I’ll need to read that again one day because I’ll want the story to unfold again, taking me along. I wasn’t taken along.

A book that was the antithesis of Little Sister was At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill. Not a new book – it was published in 2001 – but rich and timeless. O’Neill uses language like his shadow-brother, James Joyce; and it’s no coincidence that the novel takes place mostly around Sandycove, with its Martello tower haunted by that earlier James. There’s so much in this book. The life of a community with its rich and its poor, swimming, fatherhood and its gaps and tenderness, young men learning what their bodies are capable of, in the ocean as they swim towards the Muglins, and in the awkwardness of love. The complicated politics of Ireland in 1915-16 and its heroes and martyrs. The Church. I can easily imagine finding this novel in a stack waiting to find a place on the shelves and thinking, Oh, I’ll put it by my bed because I want to read it again.

The two books that spoke to one another were an unlikely pair at first. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs is a wonderful guide to Woolf’s writing process. Briggs studies the material evidence of this and provides a fascinating exploration of the context of each of Woolf’s books. What she was reading, what she was thinking, her health, her friendships, what she hoped to do as she found her way into the deep work. An Aftermath section follows each chapter, detailing the critical responses to the books and– this is so interesting!– the sales information, the reprinting schedules, and how Woolf responded to the reviews and both the successes and failures of her books. Her schemata for To the Lighthouse is particularly enlightening. “She found herself with that ‘quick decisive stroke’ writing the words ‘To the Lighthouse’ at the top of a fresh page of her notebook, and following it with a diagram rather like a letter ‘H’– the ‘two blocks joined by a corridor’, which would make up the structure of the novel – the longer ‘Window’ and ‘Lighthouse’ sequences joined by ‘Time Passes’”. It made me want to pick up To the Lighthouse again, a novel I re-read every four or five years, always with a sense of rediscovery and pleasure. Of all Woolf’s novels, this one drew its author back into the idyllic days of her childhood summers and the beauty of that, the resonance, is palpable.

I loved finding To the Lighthouse at the heart of Kerry Clare’s delightful Mitzi Bytes. Sarah Lundy’s book club meets to eat good food (even a cake decorated with a lighthouse), drink some wine, and engage in a spirited discussion about the novel. Which becomes a discussion about much more, some of it coded and allusive. As Sarah’s life is coded and (in some ways) allusive. And elusive. How many of us don’t live multiple lives? Those of us who are parents know this. Those of us in relationships (of any kind, really). I read this book in two afternoons, on a long wicker lounge in our sunroom, not wanting to finish but hoping for a happy ending. At some points, that didn’t seem possible. The book is described as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age”. I confess I never read Harriet the Spy. (Nancy Drew was the girl detective of my childhood though I suspect she wouldn’t work in the digital age. Her roadster? Her reluctance to kiss her boyfriend on the porch for fear the neighbours would see. Her sleek outfits and perfect diet, made possible by a kindly housekeeper?) But in some ways, To the Lighthouse is the shadowy H haunting these pages, bridging the before and the after, time passing, even as the computer crashes and the digital files are lost (but not the photos on her phone!):

The kids were changing all the time, so fast so often that from one morning to the next, they seemed like entirely different people. Sarah needed the pictures as proof of where the time went, but all the rest of it, everything else that mattered, were stories she kept filed away on her brain. It was an unreliable filing system, nothing ever turning up at the right moment and so much at the wrong time, but it worked. And it was possible that she didn’t need an archive, that she could go forward now.

three

In late May, we went to Edmonton to see our family there. My granddaughter told me she was “between 2 1/2 and 3″— a pretty good way of thinking about age. Today is her birthday and we just called her. She’s adamantly 3. This is what 3 looks like:

three

Her father called us just before midnight on July 16th, 2014 to tell us she was on her way. Then he called an hour or two later to announce her birth. He was dazzled. So were we. We couldn’t sleep so John went downstairs and brought back two glasses of Laphroiag and we toasted the baby—she hadn’t yet been named—and the new chapter we were entering. That morning we were dizzy with lack of sleep (and maybe the Laphroaig) but managed to pack the car so that we could leave first thing the next morning to drive across the mountains to meet Kelly. Holding her for the first time is something I will never forget.

kelly-and-grandma

We spent a few days with the new family and then drove home again to a house and a life that seemed both empty and rich at the same time. The thing about grandchildren is that you want to see them more than is possible with the lives our children live. Edmonton, Ottawa: it’s not possible to have dinners together every weekend or to read bedtime stories as often as we’d like. Skype is ok but not the same as the weight of a child on your lap, the smell of damp hair at the nape of a neck. Still, I feel very lucky to see my children and grandchildren as often as I do, knowing that my own grandparents left Europe and never saw their families there again. My great-grandparents never saw their grandchildren in Canada. When I was a child, we saw our grandparents maybe once a year. There were phone calls at Christmas.

In May, we had a week of meals with two of our children, their partners, and our 3 grandchildren. I’d wake in the morning filled with joy. At one point, in Brendan and Cristen’s backyard, I looked over to see this little group, and I wished I could paint:

weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG

That’s my shadow in the lower left corner. A few weeks ago, I was walking with the grandson in the middle of the photograph, on his street in Ottawa, and I looked behind us to see our shadows joined, following us. Depending on the light, shadows precede us, follow us, hover as we pause to notice ants on the stone, a bird in a tree, a cat washing itself on a porch. Always present, even if it’s too cloudy to see them. Too dark.

When we left Edmonton after Kelly’s birth, we drove as far as Kamloops and stayed overnight in our favourite old hotel. I woke many times that night, full of the memory of her wayward eye, her cry. I wrote this then:

This morning we’ll drive home over the Coquihalla highway and through the Fraser Valley, all haunted by memories of earlier trips with our children. It’s all part of us — the tang of sage in the air as we drive up out of the city, the soft sky fringed with pines, the sultry air near Hope. At least twenty five years ago we pointed out the shale on the Coquihalla Summit to Kelly’s father, a little boy of four or five, and he exclaimed, “Shale! I wish I was the land!”

a rose is a rose is a rose

american pillar.JPG

This past week, I finished the final proofs of Euclid’s Orchard and now it’s gone to the printer. Publisher Mona Fertig is so diligent, asking about tiny details that I’d overlooked, questioning dates on photographs, spacing. It’s a book of essays and each essay tries something different so there’s no standard format. Individual essays use epigraphs as starting points, or conversational ploys, or simply homages. Sometimes they need to be part of the actual text and sometimes set off more formally. Mona’s questions helped me clarify my own intentions. Some essays have endnotes, though the work is anything but scholarly. I wanted to remove too much extraneous material from the actual text but of course I also want to cite sources and identify the various voices that enter to speak at various points.

Today I’ve been watering and doing other chores with the thought of the book in my mind. Standing on the west deck just now, I looked at the beautiful old “American Pillar” rose that is pondered and finally identified in an essay called “Ballast”. It’s not the rose mentioned in this brief passage but it might as well have been. It can be found in settings just like this one.

In the woods between Elk Lake and Beaver Lake, I remember an abandoned house completely knitted into place by honeysuckle and roses. Knitted into my memory by roses of a kind I’ve never seen since, apple-scented, white, and humming with bees. On my black horse, I approached with the sense that here was an ancient fairy tale hidden in the woods. Which were not wild exactly but remnant—a few forgotten apple trees, pruned by deer, beaked hazelnut, even laburnum. I entered the tale, as a girl will, with a sense of wonder and expectation. I tied my horse to a tree and tried to peer in the window…

–from “Ballast”

old postcards from Ruby Lake

We’ve lived near Ruby Lake since 1980. Well, that’s not quite right. We bought our property in 1980, began building our house in 1981, when Forrest was two weeks old (we lived in a tent while building…), and moved in on John’s birthday in 1982, just a month before Brendan was born. But I have to say the property and the lake have been our home territory since we first came to camp on a little bluff on Ruby Lake while looking at land with a real estate agent in early 1980, just a few months after we got married.

I loved swimming in the lake. The water is clean, though some summers the duck itch is irritating. So are the big boats, though the ones with (is it?) open-exhaust systems are not permitted; not permitted, but no one enforces it. And so young men (they are almost always young men) like to tear around the lake, pulling each other on skis and innertubes. The lake doesn’t have a lot of public access so the areas that are accessible are often very busy now. It didn’t used to be that way. When we first came to swim in Ruby Lake, there was a rough track down to the shore at the place where the Regional District has now made a family-friendly park. You walked through hardhack and ocean spray and entered the water amid drifts of wild mint.

To get around the busy nature of the park, where we often couldn’t find a space for our family, we’d take picnics out to one of the small islands in the boat we bought with an income tax return when the kids were small. I wrote about those picnics in “Love Song”, included in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book:

Out in the boat with a picnic to eat on the island in the lake, the island we call White Pine for the little grove on its high point, or else “Going to Greece” for the scent of yarrow and dry grass. I spread out a bamboo mat on the spine of hill and brush ants from my legs while one child dives from the rocks and another swims underwater. The third is learning to start the boat motor, pulling the cord and adjusting the choke.

This morning I was looking for old photographs and came across a few that brought those summers vividly to mind:

postcard 2.jpg

You could sit on that grassy spine of the island and the world was as you wanted it.

postcard 1

There are manzanitas growing near the water and some scrubby pines on the rise and in spring, chocolate lilies and death camas. The scent of yarrow. Snakes, turtles.

For the past few summers, I haven’t done much swimming. By the time the sun is high and it’s hot, the lake is so busy. The prospect of finding a place among the others on the shore is daunting. John goes every day, late afternoon, and has a favourite place away from the beach. He swims off some rocks. But I like to ease into the water (I never learned to dive) and I’d rather stay home.

But last week I thought, Why not swim early? And why not? All winter we swam in the local pool, in part to deal with some side-effects of the health crisis I faced last fall (autoimmune stuff going on in one knee), and I loved being in the water again. Loved the buoyancy, the lightness of being, the opportunity for long meditative thinking as I swam lengths in the warm water. So after the first round of watering, after the tomato plants have been given their drink, and the roses too, we head down to the park. No more hardhack right at the shore. No more mint. But also a kind of blessed quiet. No self-respecting jet-boater is up before 9.  We enter the green water and listen to crows overhead. This morning there were a few people camping in the parking lot. A motorhome. A van. A small pick-up truck with a tent in the back. Two motorcycles with a pup tent between them. As we walked down to the beach, a guy was standing by the water. His entire body was tattooed. He told us how beautiful the lake was, that he was going to go swimming, and that he and his partner had arrived too late for the campsite at Klein Lake so they came back to the park and put their tent up by their bikes. I knew John was remembering his own first glimpse of Ruby Lake, in the early 1970s, with a girlfriend— they also arrived on motorbikes after dark and camped in a clearing off the highway. When they woke the next morning, they saw the lake below them. He never forgot its beauty. That’s why we’re here.

In a few weeks, some of the kids (and one grandson) will arrive for a week. They spend as much time in the water as they can. There will be towels everywhere, and the smell of wet hair. I can’t wait.

How long can a girl dive before her father accords her a perfect score, how many times can a boy circumnavigate the island with the throttle on low? Another practises the dead man’s float. Three years, or six. Drift on a raft under the low-growing spirea and bog laurel, count turtles on logs, crush a few leaves of wild mint in your hands while the years accumulate. Nine years, or twelve. ( from “Love Song”)

postcard 3.jpg

the weight of a hummingbird

juvenile anna's hummingbird

Half an hour ago, I noticed Winter (the cat who came out of the woods to live with us in January) at the screen door. He had something in his mouth. He sometimes catches mice and we approve of this—when they find their way into the house, it’s not fun; the mathematics of deer-mouse reproduction is kind of scary. Once I found a nest in some abandoned Halloween candy in a son’s room. Another found its way into a backpack with a leftover sandwich. In other words, our house is a kind of paradise for mice of the adventurous sort.

But today his prize was a hummingbird. He was eager to show me. And he was gentle when I removed it from his mouth. It was still alive, its long bifurcated tongue reaching out, its eyes bright. I took it upstairs, to a deck the hummingbirds love for the roses growing there, and the lilies just in bloom. In one foot, I could see a thin strand of dry moss. Did Winter find a perching bird? I sometimes see them perching on the ocean spray bushes this time of year, taking a break from nectar seeking. Never mind. It was alive.

I held it in one hand and wondered what to do. Set it down in a rose and go down to make some sugar water to see if it would recover? It seemed in shock. I looked at it carefully. No blood. Wings intact. I think it was a juvenile Anna’s—the only colour I could see, apart from its grey throat, was emerald green, the feathers on its back like the most delicate chain mail. I put it gently down in a potted rose and then stepped back. It looked around, once, twice, then whirred away in the direction of the vegetable garden.

When I came back down to the kitchen, I wondered about the weight. 0.01-0.02 ounces, the bird books tell me. I reached for a few almonds to snack on and on impulse put a few on my kitchen scale. 3 almonds. That’s the weight of a hummingbird. Can you imagine a life so light, almost unbearably light, coming in to your house in the mouth of a cat, then reviving in your hand, your roses? Whatever else happens today will seem ordinary in contrast.