today

Today I’m expecting my new book to arrive. It’s my thirteenth book and I should be blasé about it but I have to confess that this never gets old—the anticipation, the greediness to simply hold the book in my hands. To read what I wrote in a form that is not a computer screen or pages from my printer. Will the cover really look as lovely as I hope it will? Did I leave anyone out in the acknowledgements? Did I miss any major spelling errors? (I have the excellent Mother Tongue team behind me…)

A year ago this week, John and I went to Vancouver for a couple of reasons. He was scheduled for a biopsy and we were meeting Forrest, Manon, and Arthur at a hotel near the airport; their flight was going to be late and because we had to be in town the day before, we booked a room at the hotel where they’d be staying so we could bring them back home with us the next day. John had already had a biopsy a few years earlier and thought this one would be like that one—a little uncomfortable but not so big a deal. Somehow the fasting was more difficult this time around and by the time we drove down the Coast, took the ferry across Howe Sound, made our way over to the hospital, and waited, waited, for the procedure, he was pretty woozy and depleted. It didn’t seem like the time to tell him that I could barely breathe.

After a belated breakfast, we went to Richmond to the hotel and had a long nap, followed by dinner nearby. If I sat up straight, it was better. Lying down was painful. I quietly wondered if it was something to do with my heart. Or what? But then a text came to say that our young’uns were enroute to the hotel and there we were in the parking lot as the shuttle pulled in, hugging them, helping them up to their room with all the stuff you need when you travel with a baby. (Arthur was not yet a year old.) Though I have to say they travel quite light. And we have a big basket of cloth diapers, covers, shelves of clothing bought at thrift stores, in varying sizes because there are three grandchildren. We have a crib, a highchair, toys, and books.

And then it was morning and we were in our car heading home, Arthur in the car seat we’d recently bought. We were driving home, singing to the baby (though I had a hard time catching my breath), and stopping here and there for snacks, a bit of a break.

That night, just as we were getting ready for bed, I told John I thought he better take me to Emergency in Sechelt, a 45 minute drive from us. I couldn’t breathe and the pain in my chest was phenomenal. He was feeling a little grim himself but raced us down the Coast and the rest is the story of the year between then and now. Double pneumonia, which shouldn’t have been such a big deal—antibiotics worked quickly and well—but the first chest x-ray was disturbing apparently, full of weird stuff, and a second was scheduled for two weeks later.

But before the second x-ray, somehow the week of my family’s visit was memorable. Angelica came for part of it and everyone helped to make beautiful meals. After a day or two of the antibiotics, my breathing improved and the pain went away. We went up to the Laughing Oyster restaurant one day for lunch (it took the whole day because there was the ferry between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay, the long drive to Desolation Sound…) and it was wonderful to sit by the weathered wooden rails and look out to Okeover Inlet, drinking lovely cool white wine (I’m not one of those people who eschews wine while on medication…), watching seals in the water below us.

okeover.jpg

The second x-ray led to a CAT scan 6 weeks later, then a second hurriedly arranged (I was driving home from the first scan as the radiologist was frantically trying to call me) because that one showed not only a pulmonary embolism but also strange shadowy areas in my lungs which were thought to be metastases. There were tests, more tests, blood thinners to keep more clots from forming (and not rat poison but something new and very expensive that made me grateful again for Tommy Douglas and our health system), doppler scans of my legs, a visit to a specialist who showed me images of my lungs that were like maps of deep water, with areas I thought resembled amoebas. No, not amoebas, he assured me very formally. But maybe metastases. He used a pointer to describe the margins. He spoke of biopsies, gold standards of treatment, and so forth. He also scheduled a PET scan at the Cancer Clinic. He hoped this could happen before Christmas but it was possible I’d have to wait until shortly after.

So that was the fall. John’s biopsy results were negative, a huge relief, but the poor man was so worried about me that other issues developed. I insisted he swim to relieve some of the stress and he went off three mornings a week to our local pool (where our children learned to swim three decades ago). And what did I do? I wrote most of a book. In late summer, around the time that I was developing double pneumonia (though I’m not implying the two are linked!), Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing wondered if I might have a non-fiction manuscript she could consider for fall of 2017. I didn’t think I did. I’d written a long essay called “Euclid’s Orchard” and I had two other short essays in something like final draft form. Masses of notes, masses of fragments, all of which I hoped to eventually turn into essays or maybe even something longer, of a piece. These had to do with research I was doing into my family’s history in Canada. In the spring of 2016, John and I were in Alberta and I spent a little time at the Archives in Edmonton, thinking I’d find one thing and instead discovering a whole chapter of my grandmother’s early years in Drumheller that I hadn’t known and I suspect my father hadn’t known either. We drove down to Drumheller that spring, hoping to find out more. And it might sound strange to say this but there were ghosts everywhere, some of them mine.

In the nights while John slept, I came down to my desk and turned on the little lamp to make a small light to work by and I wrote about three quarters of the work in the manuscript that I did send Mona in late November and that she liked enough to say, Let’s do it! It wasn’t in finished shape in the fall and winter but I felt that I needed to do what was required to make it as good as I was able to. I didn’t know if I’d have more time, more seasons, and there was no one else who cared enough about the material to do anything with it. Maybe “care” is the wrong word. My brothers care and my children care but somehow I felt that I was called to do the work. I saw my ancestors everywhere in the winter. Looking out to the patio, they were just leaving, wispy in the cold air. Before sleep, they were around my bed, holding the edges of the sheet. I felt their hands on my shoulders. I felt them in me. I can’t say I regret the strangeness of that time, the uncertainty. I learned things. I was given things. I was welcomed into the odd embrace of people dead a hundred years. They spoke to me, though I couldn’t understand their language; and they sang to me. In the darkness, I might have felt alone but thanks to my ghosts, I was never so surrounded by love and continuity. This is true for my living family as well.

I wrote about the post-Christmas PET scan here and was relieved a few weeks later to learn that there was no sign of cancer after all. A final scan in June was also negative. My specialist says he doesn’t need to see me again. A happy ending certainly, though there are still mysteries: if not metastases, then what? And the embolism? Who knows. I joined John at the pool three mornings a week and all summer we’ve been going down to Ruby Lake around 8:30 and swimming for half an hour. Some mornings there are kingfishers. Always crows. Some mornings there are bear tracks in the damp sand. Ghosts there too but more familiar ones. My children from infancy to adulthood, and their children. When Forrest, Manon, and Arthur were here last month, they came down to the lake  with us and I loved hearing their voices as I swam back and forth in the green water under the old cedars.

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Someone recently said to me, “I didn’t think you’d have another book out so soon.” Well, no. I didn’t either. But sometimes the stars conspire, they spark and set off fierce events in our lives, and we respond. I felt like a door opened. What was beyond was a little frightening but also mysterious and beautiful. Some days I still feel as I felt on the winter day when John and I listened to Christy Moore singing an arrangement of the Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”.

We held each other and wept, for the uncertainty of our future, and for everything we loved, and when the song finished, I went downstairs, looking up to an old portrait of me, painted when I was 22, another of the ghosts who gave me comfort on those dark nights. Who is still alive to me. (I couldn’t photograph her well because she’s in a stairwell and so you see everything else reflected in the glass but maybe that’s appropriate.)

me, in the last century

…someone called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

And look, apple blossoms in her hair.

we were not on the path of totality

We didn’t have special glasses. We used two metal colanders as pinhole cameras and noted that the images through the round drainage holes turned from periods to commas as the eclipse progressed. We sat outside and it got a little cooler, a little greyer (which was eerie) but not dark.  It’s not a month in which we hear much birdsong at all so the quiet wasn’t unexpected. A hummingbird worked in the zinnias. One in our household slept.

sleeping through the eclipse

Yet we do live in perilous times. Listening to the madman south of the border makes this moment in the Odyssey ring true. It’s Theoklymenos, the seer, in Book Twenty (the Fitzgerald translation), foretelling the death of the suitors:

Oh lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Erebos, in the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in…

 

“the spiral at its very heart”

Now that the launch date has been set for Euclid’s Orchard—September 8th, 7:00 p.m., at the Sechelt Public Library (desserts to follow reading!)—my husband John has just printed a little keepsake to hand out to those who buy books that evening (book sales courtesy of Bev Shaw at Talewind Books). If you think you recognize the spiral image, it’s because it’s the same one we used for one of our Christmas cards a few years ago. a linocut, created by me. I’m not an artist, obviously, but Euclid’s Orchard, particularly the title essay, has spirals (some of them featuring the golden or logarithmic spiral, though this isn’t one of those), so it seemed a good graphic element for this keepsake. Two runs through the press (the big Chandler & Price) because it’s two colours. For years I’d look out the blue-framed window at the north end of the kitchen and see him out in the print shop, leaning over the press or the table where newly-printed pages were drying and so it was nice to pause there again and see him. Because all the doors and windows are open, I could even hear the thumping of the press working away—it’s treadle-driven— and I thought of it as a pulse. A heart-beat, a printer placing paper against the friskets on the bed, bringing the inked type-filled chase down to the bed so that the type could meet the paper and impress itself into the fibers.

keepsake with linocut

Does it feel a little like we’re coming to the end of summer? I know there are weeks of it left but the weather has changed, the smoke’s gone, and there’s a cool thread running through the warm air. This coming weekend is the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, something I’ve been involved with off and on for 13 seasons. It’s going to be a good one. We’re sold out and the excitement is high. Tonight is a dinner to welcome the musicians (who arrive early for rehearsals) and to thank their host families. I’ve made an apple galette and have picked a handful of nasturtiums to garnish it. The programme is spectacular this year, with many Canadian composers woven into each concert. The Harbour’s own mezzo-soprano, Rose-Ellen Nichols, is singing “Ships of the Night” from the Tobin Stokes opera Pauline; Rose-Ellen premiered the role with Vancouver City Opera and I’m looking forward to hearing her again. She’s part of our Rising Tide initiative where we invite young performers for an afternoon concert and it’s free (though with limited seating so only the first hundred people will be able to sit in the performance space, though others can sit on the grass outside).

 

proximate

Yesterday my publisher Mona Fertig sent me photographs of the approval copy of Euclid’s Orchard. (It had just arrived at her house on Salt Spring Island and she knew I’d like to see how beautifully it turned out. The physical book, I mean.) And oh how lovely! The cover’s sky is particularly gorgeous, given our own grey haze, the result of fires burning all over British Columbia.

euclid

But it was the inner spread she also sent, the opening page of the title essay and the image I chose to take the reader into its world, that I am so happy with. It’s a Melba apple tree, in winter, in the orchard we planted so joyfully (and with a lot of hard work) back in the 1980s and then finally abandoned, with sorrow, a few years ago. The essay explores this and it also explores my attempt to decode some of the mathematical ideas so integral to my son Brendan’s life, both in his childhood and now as a math professor in Alberta. I wanted an image that was somehow proximate, that referenced history, pattern-making, botany, the relationships between quilting and Euclidean geometry, and the ghosts who hover in our lives—our younger selves, our ancestors, the disembodied voices of coyotes in the night, even Euclid of Alexandria himself, with his Elements and his proofs. Brendan was good-natured about helping me with so many things while I was writing this essay and his patience continued as I co-opted him to produce a Euclidian algorithm in various forms in the hope that one of them could be layered with the Melba apple tree in winter. Designer Setareh Ashrafologhalai worked her magic and voila!

page

Old moss and lichen, bare boughs, and the technique for finding the greatest common divisor of two integers. Magic.

the glass of water, redux

First posted July 6, 2015…

“There were little tables along the dusty paths set out in an absent-minded way; couples were sitting there quietly in the dark, talking in low voices, over glasses of water. The glass of water . . . everywhere I saw the glass of water. It became obsessional. I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life. Earth, air, fire, water. Right now water had become the cardinal element. Seeing lovers sitting there in the dark drinking water, sitting there in peace and quiet and talking in low tones, gave me a wonderful feeling about the Greek character. The dust, the heat, the poverty, the bareness, the containedness of the people, and the water everywhere in little tumblers standing between the quiet peaceful couples, gave me the feeling there something holy about the place . . .”

–Henry Miller, from The Colossus of Maroussi

the glass of water

“The moon is just as bright as in my homeland”

The eerie dark pink sun rising over Mt. Hallowell as we swim early mornings. The moon, almost the same colour in the dark trees, glowing as it passes the house. Smoke haze everywhere, the taste of it bitter at the back of the throat. My brother and his wife evacuated from their home in the Nazko valley. Always a mild anxiety as we look around, wonder about new fires, though the smoke comes from the Interior. No rain for weeks, none is forecast. I left laundry out for two days and when it came in, it smelled of fire, a dusting of fine grey particulate on the linen sheets.

But there are things to celebrate. John lifted the garlic and sorted it, letting it dry for a few days in a safe place (bears!), and then tying it to the rafters in the woodshed to cure for the winter. Next year I’ll plant more (I always say this) but I’m grateful for the beautiful heads of Red Russian, White Italian, and the gorgeous purple striped Metechi, from Kazakhstan.

metechi

I look forward to rain. We all do. And good news from the Nazko valley. In the meantime, I think of Du Fu and his brothers, though I know mine are safe:

Tonight we start the season of White Dew,
The moon is just as bright as in my homeland.
My brothers are spread all throughout the land,
No home to ask if they are living or dead.
The letters we send always go astray…

a small jug of sweet peas for their 67th anniversary

sweet peas

It would have been the 67th anniversary of my parents today. They were married in Halifax not long after they met. Four children, many houses (my father was in the navy), many tea-chests opened in new places to discover that treasured items had been broken. Hockey games, Little League practice, hospital visits for tonsils, fire-cracker burns, a fractured pelvis from a horse accident (me), camping trips to places far and near, fishing rods propped against a wood pile. Readers of my forthcoming book will learn far more about our relationship than might be comfortable—like so many families, ours was complicated. But there are moments when you’ll see how much I loved them. Love them still. And am grateful for them meeting (it was a blind date), marrying, raising their children to care about the world.

When we returned that day from CFB Esquimalt with the stranger who was our father to our house on Eberts Street, my parents went into their bedroom and we were asked to leave them alone. I imagined my mother twirling for my father in her new suit and then the two of them hugging on the bed. Her Harris Tweed coat was hanging in the front closet, and I went in, closed the door from the inside, and put my arms into its satin-lined sleeves where I could smell my mother’s Avon underarm deodorant mingling with the wool. I was inside her coat, inside the embrace she was now sharing with my father. I was my mother, hidden from her children, the collar of the tweed coat rough against my neck.

(from “Tokens”, in Euclid’s Orchard)

mum and dad wedding day

it might have been her

spring grass

It might have been this black bear sow, the one who came to our house with her yearling in spring, it might have been her who swam just before us. On our way down to the lake, fresh bear scats on the road, and on the sand, fresh tracks leading to the water, in, then out again and off into the woods. I could almost smell her. And when I entered the water, I thought of all the creatures who need cool water, particularly on these hot days when the smoke haze is thick and the creeks are dry. I have bowls of water around for the frogs and we have a funny little pool, created from an old claw-footed bathtub, where the tadpoles have already become this year’s tree-frogs. The bird-bath is full and grateful robins use it most days.

Yesterday the air was so close and hot that we closed all the windows, put on the fans, and tried to stay cool. This morning I’ve just gathered a big bowl of greens — new kale, old kale, lambs quarters, chicory, blood-red sorrel, arugula going to seed — for a pie and while the oven is on, I’ll roast a little organic hen with herbes de Provence and lemons. A watermelon gazpacho. By evening no one wants to cook.

greens

The rain-barrels are almost empty and the Douglas firs are scarily brown. Not all of them, which has me thinking about water and its secret sources. We have a deep well, drilled into granite, and the water is pretty much the same year round. Cold, clear, and so far, there’s been lots of it. But no one should depend on anything staying the same; hence, the rain-barrels.

A few years ago, when we had 13 weeks without a drop of rain, I said I’d never complain about it again. During the wet winter, I kept my promise. And now I’m dreaming of it, dreaming of its sound on our metal roof. Here’s a beautiful little poem by Du Fu (712 – 770 A.D.). What he calls musk, I call the smell of Chablis — water on dry rock, flinty and delicious. Bring it on.

A slight rain comes, bathed in dawn light.
I hear it among treetop leaves before mist
Arrives. Soon it sprinkles the soil and,
Windblown, follows clouds away. Deepened

Colors grace thatch homes for a moment.
Flocks and herds of things wild glisten
Faintly. Then the scent of musk opens across
Half a mountain — and lingers on past noon.