September postcard, from home


Putting stuff together for a week away. Some readings (Saturday night on Salt Spring Island, at the library in Ganges; Munro’s Books in Victoria next Wednesday), some meals and walks with friends and family, an adventure or two. I’m roasting three Japanese eggplants to toss with basil and garlic for a mezes supper tonight, along with a green olive tapenade, some figs stuffed with herbed cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, and quickly grilled. There’s a melancholy to the late September light, honeyed and golden, and something wistful about the sound of sapsuckers in the dry woods. You hear them and then, in a month, you realize how much you miss the sounds of late summer and fall. As though it passed without you noticing (because you were busy making jam, pickling beans, airing the quilts for the winter beds) and then all you notice is the silence. The frost. The long nights and how it is dark for an hour after you wake.

A postcard is proof that the flowers are still blooming, that you bent and noticed. There are roses in bud and honeysuckle tumbling over the pergola leading into the garden. Everyone I love feels very far away. I will sign this postcard in the old way: Wish you were here.

Henry says “beluga”

My grandson Henry turned 1 two weeks ago. He is a dear little boy, with a big smile, and good parents, a lovely older sister. He’s too far away for me to see him as often as I’d like—all my grandbabies are too far away for that—but I love receiving photographs and videos and I even like Skype, even though it’s often so awkward. (I blame our satellite internet connection!)

I remember my own children acquiring language. The utility of some words was obvious. Mum. Dad. Hi. Bye. And some words were particular to our family culture. One of my son Forrest’s first words was coffee. In those days I drank far more coffee than I do now (ah, age!) and it came with its own rituals. The first morning cup, brought to me in bed. (Our household still respects this ritual…) Our pretty Imari cups for espresso after dinner.


Yesterday I couldn’t stop looking at a video of Henry. He’s not only learned to walk in the time since his first birthday but he’s also learned a new word! I can’t embed the video here without upgrading my site but I can show you the small boy and you can imagine him very seriously saying, “Beluga!” (Baby Beluga is his favourite book right now.) He says it as clearly as anything and even his sister looked up from what she was doing to exclaim, “Henry said ‘beluga’!”

pool rats

What words get to be the first are often strange and magical. Henry’s cousin Arthur is nearly two and he has been talking a wild streak for a year now, in English and French with a few Arabic words thrown in because his daycare provider is Moroccan by birth. When he was with us in late July, he kept asking to go up to see the épouvantaille. Épouvantaille, Grandmama! I didn’t know what he was talking about but it turned out he was smitten with the dollar store scarecrow on a bamboo pole planted in a pot of lilies. He wanted to visit it, oh, ten times a morning. He was a little nervous about actually getting too close to the thing but I suggested he might want to water it. So while I was watering the potted tomatoes and roses, he carefully poured water into the pot with the épouvantaille.


I wish I knew what my first word was, after Mum, Dad, Star (who was the dog of my childhood), and the names of my brothers. I wish I knew what thing was so important that I just had to name it, something as enticing as a scarecrow or whale.

parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme


When I looked at the pantry shelves this morning, I realized we had no herbal jelly. Usually I make a few batches—orange basil; thyme blossom; intensely-flavoured rosemary (a perfect match for roast lamb). But not this year, not yet. Until now. One that I like is one I like to think I invented. I call it Scarborough Fair jelly and I date myself with that name. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” It’s the prettiest pale green and sometimes I put a dried chili in to give the jelly a kick as well as to watch over the months as the green takes on a little of the chili’s colour

Any child of the 1960s and 1970s will remember the Simon and Garfunkel version of the old “Scarborough Fair” ballad though I loved Marianne Faithfull’s sweet and delicate rendering. When I sing this on my own (and I intend to work up a version for my grandbabies), I’ll think of Marianne’s crisp enunciation and the way she draws out “cambric shirt” in the last verse.

And cambric! What a lovely word. A finely woven cotton or linen, first made in Cambrai. I have a basket of cottons, two vintage linen single-bed sheets, and even two lengths of pale raw silk waiting for me to find time for a dye vat and the work of preparing the fabric for shibori. Before the frosts, before the fall storms, I want to have them dyed and ready for a winter quilt. The other day I was sorting images in a digital file and I found this,


the top of a quilt I finished for Forrest and Manon. It was the second fish quilt I made and the next two were better, I think, in that I figured out how to do the Mokume technique a little more effectively. And I used more shell buttons to articulate the fish-spines, to suggest eggs among stones.

The season turned on Friday and now we prepare for winter. Jellies to have with roast chicken and lamb, a big vat of squash and apple soup yesterday, and this basket of cloth waiting, waiting for its immersion into indigo, its transformation to something more than itself.


a doctrine of signatures


The shy doe who has been around most days ate the hart’s tongue fern while we were away in Vancouver so I could read at Cottage Bistro from Euclid’s Orchard. Usually she doesn’t venture onto the patio but obviously she felt brave in our absence.  She left a few leaves of white violet but everything else has been nipped to the stem.

hart's tongue

I don’t think this doe had a fawn this year. In the past, we’ve seen deer with twins or singles and have watched the young ones grow over the summer season.


The local black-tail deer mate in November and December. Maybe this one is averse to the prospect.  She has eaten the fern shaped like the tongue of a hart, that beautiful animal out of the Song of Songs (“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag: behold, he stands behind our wall, he looks forth through the windows, showing himself through the lattice.“), and wanders near our house, maybe hoping for protection. I’ve always been interested in the history of herbal medicines and the old idea of the doctrine of signatures, found in Dioscorides and Galen and revived by Paracelsus, suggesting that every herb has its sign, indicating its use for human conditions. A heart-shaped leaf, for treating the heart. Yellow leaves for jaundice. Eye-bright for diseases of the eyes.

Of these ferns, Culpepper tells us, “The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart…” Maybe the doe has her own longings, satisfied by the long leaves of a hart’s tongue fern glazed with rain. I wish her well in the fall season when we often see the bucks standing in brush by the side of the highway, looking for mates. As for the fern, it will grow back.


Oh, the days dwindle down

We’re at the doorstep of autumn, the overnight temperatures cool enough to require an extra cover on the bed. The woodshed is filling, tomatoes strung across the back to ripen against the wall of dry wood. Yesterday I thought our lake swim might be our last for the year (and we went at 10:30, not our usual 8:30) but I think we’ll go out in our little boat today and tie it to a log on the island we’ve always loved and have a final swim around the island. The merganser chicks have long fledged, the cutthroat will be spawning soon.

Last night we drove home late from dinner with friends and saw an owl swoop up from the dark road. It watched us pass from a fir tree. Time to fill the woodbox in the porch, time to watch the crapapple tree for the bear who always comes this time of year to feast on the small scabby fruit. To watch the leaves fall from the cascara and mountain ash just beyond my study. And to watch this young doe browsing in the dry grass.

september song

It always feels a little sad when the season turns. Did I accomplish anything over the summer beyond morning swims and a bit of editing? I saw my family, yes, but miss them this morning and am trying to figure out how to see them sooner rather than later. When we walked over to the mailboxes the other day, the school bus passed and Wendy (who’s driven this leg of the route since my children were small) honked her horn and waved. I almost expected the bus to stop at our driveway and three kids to climb down the stairs, hands clutching watercolours, lunchboxes, a backpack of homework. Time to pull out the basket with the half-finished quilt, time to pickle another half-dozen jars of beans.  To open the sack of daffodil bulbs and think about where to plant them.


Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you.

—Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson


“When the gift moves in a circle…”

I’ve always loved the idea of gifts and reciprocity. The circular pattern of that process. What you give, you receive. This time of year I fill our pantry shelves with preserves, more than we can ever use. But when we are invited to dinner with friends, we take wine, yes, and often a jar of jam or pickled beans or a herbal jelly. I remember the time I spent living on Crete in the 1970s and how I would accompany my love interest of the time, Agamemnon (yes, that was his name!), to dinners with friends of his family. At the door we would be greeted with a small tray holding a glass of water and a jar of quince or cherry preserves. A long spoon. We would take a spoon of the preserve, called “spoon-sweets”, followed by a drink of water. Sometimes a tiny cup of coffee. This practice was part of an ancient code called Xenia. The guest was treated well in part because he or she might be a god or goddess in disguise. And if that didn’t prove to be the case? Well, no matter. The host had done the right thing. And a guest treated well was unlikely to behave badly.
“When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”– Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property
When people come to us, they bring flowers or books or wine; I feed them; John keeps our glasses replenished; they tell us stories and we share our own. Sometimes they leave with a bag of kale or a rooted cutting of wisteria or scented geranium. It’s the world I want to live in so I do my part.
Someone who does not know the Tigris River exists
brings the caliph who lives near the river
a jar of fresh water. The caliph accepts, thanks him,
and gives in return a jar filled with gold coins.
                 — Rumi, from “The Gift of Water”, trans. Coleman Barks
Someone once said as she arrived for dinner and put a jar of beautiful raspberry jam on the counter, “It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle.” But it wasn’t. Not at all. We grow wonderful raspberries but I never make jam of them. I don’t know why, quite. It seems there are always other things happening when the raspberries (cherished, for sure, but also called “the frigging raspberries” late in their season when they have to be picked, yet again, almost always by John, and arranged on trays for the freezer. In peak season, there’s a bucket a day….), anyway, when the raspberries are ripe so I never make jam of them. And hot buttered toast, with raspberry jam, in January? Oh, man.
So this isn’t entirely about jam. It’s about exchange. John printed these keepsakes on our Chandler and Price platen press to give out at my book launch and yes, we did that. Or Bev Shaw did. She owns Talewind Books and is the gracious bookseller at so many literary events on our coast. (Those who attend the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt will recognize her name!) She is a true friend to writers and readers. We have copies of the keepsake left. I’ll take some to Munro’s in Victoria for the reading I’m doing there on October 4th with Bill Gaston. But in the meantime, send me a photo or maybe just a confirmation that you’ve bought a copy of Euclid’s Orchard (my contact info is in the menu on the right-hand side of my home page) and I’ll mail you a copy of this lovely little letterpress keepsake. I can’t offer you a spoon of jam at the door and a glass of our delicious well water, not unless you visit us here, but I can offer something else. And I’m very happy to do that.
keepsake with linocut

some brought flowers

So, Euclid’s Orchard is well and truly launched.Maybe it began to feel like it was actually in the world when I saw the sign in Talewind Books earlier in the week,


and certainly when my publisher Mona Fertig and her husband arrived for lunch yesterday on their way back from Savary Island,


and, well, the day before that, when I baked the desserts that were waiting to be packed up for transport down to Sechelt.

just desserts

Two apple galettes (“One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt.”), a peach and blueberry galette (“…that road led back to the foot of Poignant Mountain, forgotten and then found, lard pails stained by blueberries…”), and a dense chocolate torte that uses 2 Tbsp. of flour so it’s easy to make it gluten-free with rice flour for those who don’t eat wheat. A round of Brie, a jar of last year’s pepper jelly, fierce with Vietnamese peppers, and a few Merton Beauties to have with the cheese.

The Sechelt Library opened its doors, set up chairs, long tables for those desserts, tea and coffee, and lots of posters of Euclid’s Orchard‘s vivid cover. I wondered to Margaret Hodgins (the Chief Librarian) if anyone would actually come but by the time she introduced me, people were spilling out of the doors. It was so wonderful to talk about my book and read passages to people I’ve known forever and new faces too. To talk about how math came late to me, after a visit to Brendan when he was at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute above Berkeley in 2013—he’d told us that he and Cristen were expecting a baby and I saw for the first time how we move forward in time, how we anticipate the future and how the past is hovering still, as potent as anything, that we are everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, and that Brendan knew equations that might help me to know this more deeply. To know him more deeply, as a man, as a father. And it was the Sechelt Library that had the copy of Joy of Math dvds that I brought home and diligently watched on my computer screen, understanding about 30% of the material but realizing how beautiful the structures are. (At least one person came to me afterwards to say that he was going to have a look at the Joy of Math. T. Kishkan, math recruiter?) I’d asked for a screen to have behind me as I read and on it a series of images passed quietly, some of them photographs from the book, and others of those strange presences who hovered as I was writing the essays: my grandmother and her first husband in the early days of their marriage; my grandfather’s sisters (I think they must be); the dusty streets of Drumheller, circa 1913, when my grandmother arrived with her 5 children after a long ocean voyage; an ultrasound of a beloved grandchild; my mother in a garden as a small girl; a funeral gathering by the house my father grew up in, though three years before he was born. I felt them in the room as I felt them last fall.

Anyway, it was wonderful, all of it. Some brought flowers.

jane's bouquet


harrisons on the woodstove

After the reading, Bev Shaw sold books and tucked a copy of the little keepsake John printed into them. (It helps to have a husband who is a letterpress printer, among his other accomplishments.)

keepsake with linocut

People ate and talked and I thought how the whole evening was a gift. A year ago, I wasn’t sure how the future would unfold because of what tests and scans had revealed. That’s all in the past now, part of the never-ending story that I am constantly listening to, trying to tell.



“Work was something that thrived on fire”

Smoke again, from the Interior fires. The sun that eerie pink-gold when you can see it at all. And the world dry, dry. I was at my desk, finishing the first draft of a long essay on grief and music. I told John the reason why I am playing Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin over and over again is because I need to understand the rhythm of the movements; they correspond with dances of the time. Well, they do, and they don’t. But I listen — Hilary Hahn, who recorded the partitas at the age of 17; Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded the particular partita I’m obsessed with these days twice, as a young man and as an older man, and I can’t say which I prefer (there is such depth and colour in both recordings); Lara St. John; Joshua Bell….In my essay, I am trying to replicate something of that stately music. Only the dancers are old and dying; they’re people for whom this music would have been as foreign as poetry; but they’re mine and somehow I believe they can dance an allemande or a gigue with the best of them.

It’s my youngest grandchild’s birthday in two days and somehow the music reminds me of how rich my life is with him and his sister and his cousin in the world. We won’t be there to help him celebrate but I expect he will like the box I sent to him, filled with little gifts; he will no doubt like the paper and ribbons best. Though in time he will come to the books, the other things. And he will crawl and walk (unsteadily, maybe just a step at a time) in the grass, his beautiful face as expressive as any I’ve ever loved. Sometimes he dances. And he’s in the essay too.

beautiful henry

I’ve been thinking of poetry, of poems about families, and the one that comes to mind is Philip Levine’s gorgeous “Smoke”. Here’s a passage…

Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.

He alludes in the poem to “the mythology of the family” and in an interview in The Atlantic in 1999, he explained what he meant: “When I speak of “the mythology” in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone.” Which is exactly what I’m writing about in this essay on music and sorrow—in the smoke, in the heart-breaking Chaconne of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the dance of the one(s) left behind, as the sun retreats from us, and we move into autumn.

Continue reading ““Work was something that thrived on fire””


Li Bo (also known as Li Bai and Rihaku, friend of Du Fu, who has visited this site before) knew about heat. Read this aloud for its music and the relief of that wind.

Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.

It’s hot here. I’ve lost count of the weeks without rain. I know there was one shower in late July but nothing for weeks before that, or since. I know we’ll lose some trees this year. We water the ones near the house—the copper beech planted for my parents, the little oak found growing on a trail near us (and seeded by a squirrel, I think, from an acorn gathered in a garden near Sakinaw Lake), the magnolia planted for John’s 40th birthday, the Merton Beauty apple in the vegetable garden. But the Douglas firs, the cedars, the hemlocks—well, let’s face it, we live in a forest, and there are too many trees to even begin to water in the way they need it: gallons, for those root systems anchoring them in place. Many of them are very stressed. We are too, a little. Though not too stressed to make chiles rellenos for dinner, half of which appear here, the other half eaten with roasted salsa, corn, steamed beans and tiny crookneck squash (and these remaining chiles will make a nice dinner tomorrow night, too, cool with tomatoes and salad of green beans and little potatoes with tarragon).

chiles rellenos

What weather. Flooding in so many places, temperatures in the high teens in Ottawa, and here it’s more like 33. Yet this morning the lake was beautiful and cool, the light clear, the sky as blue as a book of hours.  I’d love to wake in the night and hear rain on our metal roof. I think the trees would too. In the meantime, a white feather fan would be lovely, and wind from pine trees.