the murmur of voices in cold air

near stump lake
It’s always interesting to me that new friends can be made in one’s later years and that you find yourself wondering why it took so long to meet these people. In truth, I knew of Robin and Jillian Ridington before I ever met them. They are distinguished anthropologists, the authors of books that form an important part of the canon of North American ethnographic studies. On my desk I keep a copy of Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations , an extraordinary gathering of stories told to them by elders living in the Peace River area, a place where they’ve done fieldwork (and made friends) for decades. I also loved When You Sing It Now, Just Like New: First Nations Poetics, Voices and Representations.  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
We met at the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved with the Festival as an organizer and writer since the first year—2005—and Jillian and Robin have been supporters since that first summer. I thought Robin in particular looked familiar but it wasn’t until later, after I’d taken a break from the Festival for a few years and then returned, that we became friends. One of the highlights of the summer is joining them for dinner on their Nordic Tug—they come to Pender Harbour by boat, often from their haven on Retreat Island, near Galiano Island. Robin grills steaks over the most ingenious barbecue at the stern of the boat (where there’s also a mangle for washing clothing; they spend a lot of time exploring coastal inlets and islands, living aboard for weeks on end). The tug drifts in slow circles on its anchor and we talk, drink red wine, eat until it’s time for Robin to take us back by Zodiac to the dock at Whiskey Slough. The old harbour is there as we talk—the net sheds, small houses with weathered boards, a few boats I remember from the days when we bought our halibut and salmon as the fishermen returned each year—though the new harbour continues to grow those huge houses and fences and yachts capable of taking out docks as they turn.
So friends, with whom we began a conversation years ago and we pick up where it left off whenever we meet. When we were in Victoria for a reading at Munro’s Books in October, we stayed with the Ridingtons for two nights (before heading over to the Surf Motel). We had delicious meals at their table and a wonderful evening of pupus (the Ridingtons spend winters on Maui where they immerse themselves in high Hawaiian music and culture and I love that they use Hawaiian words so naturally at home, including this word for appetizers!) and wine with John Schreiber and Marne St. Claire. I gave them a copy of Euclid’s Orchard as a gift. And this morning Robin returned the gift with this beautiful review:
Perhaps because her son Brendan is a mathematician, she used the matrix of Euclidean geometry as a way of interpreting the web of cultural and natural influences surrounding their lives.  She even attempts to learn something of mathematics, enough at least, to inform and organize and understand her experiences on their land.  As with everything Kishkan has written, these essays are beautiful, personal, and at the same time universal in their scope.  They are to be read, contemplated and then returned to after some dreamtime assimilation.
Jillian reviewed Winter Wren (and by inference, Patrin) in the summer 2017 issue of Herizons. The review isn’t available to read online but here’s a link to the issue in the event you might want to order it. (I read Herizon at the library and it’s terrific.)  Jillian is intelligent and perceptive; here’s the first paragraph of her review:

BC writer Theresa Kishkan has been writing compelling fiction and poetry for many years. Recently, she has embraced the novella as her chosen form. A novella “retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.1” In other words, it’s a perfect form for women writers who have a story to tell, but lack the time or desire to write an extensive novel — or simply find their material more suited to the shorter form.  For me, the novella a perfect form – long enough to fully develop characters and plot, but short enough to be read in the snatches of time I usually find available. Kishkan’s first novella, Patrin, published by Mother Tongue Press in 2015, tells of a woman’s search to find her Roma foremothers, using clues sewn into a quilt left to her by her grandmother. It is a tale of renewed roots and reclaimed skills. Her latest work, Winter Wren, is the first publication from Fish Gotta Swim Editions, a new company founded by Theresa and her friend Anik See, which will specialize in novellas.  And these two books are little gems – brilliant and reflective.

How do people find one another? How in this world of billions of people do we find the ones that we can share conversations of poetry and dreamers and music, of our families, of the old coast we all love and remember, the politics we deplore, the books we are reading (and writing)? We do, though. When we were in Victoria, Robin played a soundscape recorded by Howard Broomfield in Doig River—children singing, stories shared, dogs barking, the murmur of voices in cold air, by fires so near you could smell the smoke. I’ve dreamed of those voices, preserved on tape and in memory, and it’s what I’ve always wanted. Continuity, true place, true words.

a chest, unlocked



I still have the carved chest. For years my mother stored all her sweaters in it, and they had the distinctive smell of camphorwood. There was a shallow inner box that sat on a ridge around the top. She kept small containers with various pieces of jewellery on the shelf, and gloves. I keep my sweaters in the chest, and the linen tablecloths that have come from John’s mother (embroidered with brilliant flowers by his grandmother in Suffolk),as well as several from the Goodwill on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, bought while I killed time between readings on a book tour in 2001. I keep my pashminas there too, a kaleidoscope of them, many of them gifts from my children. Everything that comes from the chest carries the smell of my childhood, sharp and arboreal. — from “Tokens”, Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

Sometimes the scent is all it takes and there I am, back in my mother’s bedroom, watching her dab on a tiny drop of My Sin as she got ready to go out with my father. I would have been 6 or 7, and the chest was new, brought home by my father from a long naval trip to the Far East. (I wrote about the trip and the chest in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard.) I’ve been tidying my study, trying to find room for all the papers I prepared for an anticipated visit from librarians interested in acquiring my archive, then delayed. So the papers are organized in boxes and laundry baskets and there’s nowhere else to store them. Given my magpie nature and my tendency to just pile stuff up (“I’ll deal with it later.”), it was hard to find my way to my desk. I have the habit of clearing my desk and as much of the study as I can when I’m trying to find my way into regular writing again and so this weekend I cleared and dusted and moved stuff around. It’s hard to actually get rid of any of it. The big rocks from various riverbeds and beaches. The spruce and pine cones from trees on several continents, including a tree in front of my grandmother’s house in Horni Lomna, in the Czech Republic. My beloved dog Lily’s pelvis! A small level made by John’s paternal grandfather of oak and brass for a tool box he’d put together for John’s father when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. Worry dolls. Books, books, books. A scanner I was keeping even though I couldn’t download drivers for my current computer but then yesterday, on a whim, I tried again, and voila!

I found room for a small set of bookshelves I built in grade 12 and put all my field-guides and plant books and bird books and that meant moving the chest to another location. I polished it with wood-cleaner and then opened it. Her scent, in a way; at least, her scent in the years she wore Pringle sweaters and gloves stored in the chest, and very occasionally dabbed on My Sin (though the bottle is 3/4 full so she couldn’t have used it very often). At the bottom of the chest was a bag with fabric in it.

two silks

The plain one is actually a very vivid cherry raw silk from Italy, though I bought it in Ottawa, from Woven Streams (actually in Gatineau; I crossed the river to find the shop). The other fabric is Atlas ikat silk brought as a gift by my brother when he worked in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The silk is made from the silk produced by Atlas moths, huge and beautiful creatures; and the fabric is used to make clothing for Uyghur women. I look at these two lengths and imagine something really luxurious—I don’t know, an opera cloak? A rustling skirt? But I can’t sew well enough for anything so lovely and the fabric sits in the chest where it smells of camphorwood and Pringle sweaters and maybe just faintly of My Sin.

Years ago, I read Penelope Lively’s wonderful memoir, A House Unlocked, about her family’s ancestral home in Somerset and thought what a good way to record a family’s history: through its domestic context, its gardens, its implements. For my parents’ home, this would have meant the Melmac plates, the china vase in the shape of a bible with a homily on it, a plaster-of-paris picture of a lighthouse, a lamp on the television in the shape of two ducks flying with a candy dish as its base. We were not a grand family. And after my parents died, I found silver-plated cutlery, including very beautiful salad servers still in their original package, and linen napkins, all wedding gifts, never ever used but saved for an occasion that didn’t happen. What would that have been, I wonder? I use silver for family meals and the linen napkins that are now stained a little but I think of that as a patina, part of the experience and pleasure of use.

On each recovery of Golsoncott, each return to the place now safely stashed in the mind, intact and inviolate, I review the familiar landscape of the house. A left turn out of the vestibule, past the gong stand—the cloakroom door now facing me and, behind that, the red-tiled floor, the wall of pegs slung with old raincoats, riding macs, gardening aprons, sou’westers, my aunt’s hunting bowlers, the rack of walking sticks, the dog leads, everything tinged pink with Somerset earth…Here in the dining room my grandmother played Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky 78s that clicked and clumped from within her adventurous purchase of a radiogram. Here Rachel worked at wood engravings at the fireside. Here, each evening, I laid the table for dinner, abiding by an inexorable formula—the correct selection of implements and impedimenta from the sideboard and the silver cupboard. — from A House Unlocked

I thought of my childhood as without ceremony and ritual (there was no “inexorable formula” for setting the table with the Melmac plates and the glasses—former Cheez Whiz jars, printed with pheasants and ducks), yet when I look at the camphorwood chest, I remember the dusky scented room with my mother stepping into her high-heeled shoes, draping a chiffon scarf around her neck before reaching for her muskrat fur jacket. I remember tracing my fingers across the surface of the chest, trying to read the story of the two men lifting their end of a sedan chair with a pagoda roof (in the photo above you can’t see the man at the back, holding up his end), the occupant just visible through a small opening. I imagined I was that occupant, perhaps being carried to the mountains, the scent of camphorwood heady in the air.

“notes, notes on a long line”

mum and dan

I am wrestling with the final draft of an essay on grief, on the geography of grief, for an anthology. I’ve written about it before, the difficulty I’ve had in finding a rhythm, a tempo, for this piece. I’ve used Bach as a template, specifically the Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004. This morning I’m thinking about the gigue. The tempo is so crisp and lively, yet there is also something ominous in its structure. I keep listening to Hilary Hahn and in her playing, I relive my mother’s last days.

4. Gigue, in Victoria, your final days

I can’t keep up. My pulse races in the offices where we learn how quickly a life comes to its end. I hold your hand. Notes on a clipboard, blood pressure, the number of tumours gathered in a body. You refuse the treatments, remembering the needle through your chest wall, the first discovery of the malignant pleural effusion.

How quickly the years passed, how quickly we grew apart, too late the return, the counterpoint of our footwork, you holding my arm as we walked to the x-ray room, my boots brisk on the polished floor. Your chest on the screen made the technician come to me and say how sorry she was, how sorry. And you in the changing room, unable to lift your arms to put on your camisole, your scar uncovered, a vine of stitches like brambles covering where your breast had been, notes, notes on a long line, nicked with rests, yours, mine, how quickly the years do pass.

the colour of sleep

A stormy wet day here on the west coast, the air drenched with November rain. A good day to work inside, to lay out a quilt using the indigo-dyed fabric from an October weekend with the dye vat. I’ve been thinking about how to use the finished cloth. This piece is a length of fairly coarse linen and I used a kumo technique on half of the fabric, placing small round beach stones on a series of diagonal lines. The other half I just twisted and bound with hemp string. I love the result and didn’t want to cut it.


I hoped to find a piece of deep red flannel for the back but the fabric shop in Sechelt didn’t have quite enough so I bought a brighter red instead. It’s very soft, as is the organic cotton batting I bought for the middle layer. Smoothing and arranging the layers together was very satisfying and already my hands are yearning to quilt this one. I’m not sure quite how I’ll do that. I thought maybe a grid of red sashiko stitches and who knows, maybe that’s what I’ll try. But I also have a box of shell buttons in varying sizes and I’m thinking about how they might fit into the quilting process.  Texture and intention often suggest how one should approach the actual quilting. The linen is heavy and so small stitches might be difficult to do. The flannel will be kind of slippery. And because I don’t intend this to be a bed-cover but a more decorative piece, I can get away with quilting that isn’t entirely meant for strength. Here’s a view of the layers basted together:

laid out

I love blue. I love the blues that are the result of indigo dyes. I’ve yet to get the really dark indigo that I know is possible through careful dips and oxidization periods. I used Procion dye for an early shibori quilt and yes, it’s a darker blue but somehow it’s not as moody as natural indigo. (I have a tub of woad too but haven’t yet tried it.) I’ve been reading about colour psychology and most of it seems silly to me. On indigo, for example: “It suggests fairness and integrity, being an authoritative color. Indigo has a lot to do with structure and implies a need for organization. It has to do with rules, traditions and religion.” I remember when I read Victoria Finlay’s book on colour about ten years ago that blue was one of the most expensive pigments and was reserved for moments such as painting the Virgin Mary’s robes.

I’ve read that blue is one of the best colours for restful sleep because the ganglion cells in your eyes’ retinas are sensitive to blue and associate it with calm, keeping your blood pressure low and reducing your heart rate. My bedroom walls are soft yellow but I have an indigo block-printed cover on my duvet, and in winter I make our bed with blue flannel sheets. Sometimes my sleep is restful, yes, and sometimes it’s filled with drama and extravagant adventure. So who knows. In Robert Bly’s beautiful “The Indigo Bunting” (a bird I’ve never seen though there were snow buntings where I lived in Ireland), there’s a stanza I love:

There were women in Egypt who
supported with their firmness the stars
as they revolved,
hardly aware
of the passage from night
to day and back to night.

My indigo quilt will have stars, diagonal lines of them created with stones and elastic bands resisting the dye, and maybe when it’s finished, I’ll hang it over the bed, a charm to take the sleepers below from night to day and back to night. I’d be happy to dream of those women, holding up the sky, hardly aware, which is sort of the way things work sometimes. Women, stars, the colour of sleep.

It was somehow our river

above the Fraser

We’ve had a wonderful week with two of our grandchildren, the two from Edmonton, who arrived with their parents, and were ready for books, walks, collecting bouquets of leaves, singing “Over in the Meadow” over and over again, as well as hearing Curious George Goes To The Hospital. John had surgery mid-week so the book was read many times in anticipation of that as well as once he arrived home after a night in the hospital. The grandchildren even visited their grandfather briefly in the hospital. Henry, who is 1, shouted loudly as he presented a branch of berried greenery and a stuffed Santa (self-chosen) that farted “Deck the Halls” when the bum was pressed. Kelly, who is 3, was a little less brave and perhaps disappointed that there were no monkeys sliding down banisters or upsetting dinner carts.

While they were here, I put my own work aside for the pleasure of their company. And this morning, I am finding my way back into it. But a book about the beautiful Thompson and Fraser Rivers, the roads leading to them, and away, has me wishing for a road trip. Not a late fall trip, though. An early summer one, with bluebirds, and pollen, and drifts of arrow-leaved balsamroot. That dry air. The sound of Clark’s nutcrackers.

So I will write about those things instead of walking into sage and rabbit-brush. Instead of stopping to dream my way into abandoned cabins, heating the coffee in a small fire in a ring of stones.

I needed to drive. I needed to drive up the river, try to follow it to Kamloops where I also hoped to find Ethel Wilson, or at least a trace of her on the landscape she’d written about in Swamp Angel. I would be following the river back from where it had claimed you, James, back through its deep canyon in the desert north of Spences Bridge (I felt I knew it intimately between Spences Bridge to Lytton, the section you loved and where, when I swam in its warm waters, I was in your company for a brief and sweet time), gardens and remnants of old orchards on the shrub-steppes between Ashcroft and Kamloops, and maybe beyond, to the more verdant corridors along its southern route from its outlet at Little Shuswap Lake. One day I would also explore its northern arm’s sinuous flow from its glacial origins near Blue River to where it joined the south arm at Kamloops. I wanted to know it all. It was somehow our river, mine and yours. Thinking of it that way made me shiver a little and I tried to ignore the rattling noise my truck made every time I accelerated on the wide sections of the highway.


planting daffodils

planting bulbs

Yesterday, during a break in the storm, I planted daffodils with my granddaughter Kelly. She’s 3. We had a bag containing 50 bulbs and we planted them all in rough areas where I want a bit of colour next spring. She used a small trowel and fork to begin the hole and then I used a bigger garden fork brought from England by John’s mother after her mother died in the early 1980s. It’s a fork that travelled from Sheffield, where John’s grandparents lived and where his mother was born in 1920 and where John was also born in 1947, to Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast where Grandmother Mabel went to live after she was widowed.

When the holes were deep enough for the bulbs, I scattered a handful of bone and kelp meal and Kelly placed the bulbs in, rooted end first, three or four in each hole, and then we covered them up with the soil and moss we’d dug up. I was surprised at how patient she was. Her mum and dad said she wants to be a gardener when she grows up and she certainly has the stamina for it at this point in her life, because part-way through our planting, it began to rain again. Digging, placing the bulbs, covering them up…and walking to the next area. I’ll take a photograph of them when they’re in bloom, I promised her.

We planted ten bulbs in the little enclosure where I put a copper beech tree the summer after my mother died. I planted it in memory of my parents, in memory of Bukovina, where my grandfather came from in the early years of the 20th century. Bukovina means “place of beech trees” and this tree will outlive us.  Its leaves are the most beautiful coppery brown and they have a lightness to them.

While we were planting daffodils, Auntie Angie was walking around with her brother Brendan (Kelly’s father) and Henry, who is 1. Angie showed her nephew and niece a tiny salamander she found under a rock.



It warmed up in Angie’s hand and was eager to return to its rock. I thought of a poem by Denise Levertov, “Living”, which somehow was about our day, our lives:

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

postcard, Sunday afternoon

brendan and his children

In-between showers, there were walks, an adventure to help Grandma fill the wood-box (division of labour has shifted until after Grandpa’s surgery this week), a bath with boats and ducks, many mandarin oranges, and many stories, including our original copy of Jelly Belly from the 1980s. There was a Skype visit with our Ottawa family. A plastic truck has been pushed up and down the hall at least twenty times since lunch and the older of these grandbabies is still napping under blankets crocheted by my mother for the father, aunt, and uncle of these children.

Henry and his truck

my mum, the hockey player

mum's team

After my mum died in 2010, I brought home boxes of papers from her apartment in Victoria. Everything was unsorted, chaotic. And most of it was unfamiliar to me. Like this photograph. I never knew my mother played hockey—she’s third from the right in the back row, the one with dark curly hair.

We lived in Spryfield, a suburb of Halifax, from 1963-65, and it was the first time my brothers and I skated. There was a pond near us—I think it was called Kidston Pond—and it froze quite early our first winter there. My mum pulled out an old pair of black skates for me to wear. I hated them. They were too big, for one thing, but black? The other girls wore white figure skates and swirled on the ice like dancers. A couple of them even had short velvet skirts and woolen tights that made them look like stars. My mum’s old skates were clunky, with dull blades, and I remember how sore my ankles were as I struggled to keep my balance.

She told us a story in those years in Spryfield: when she was a girl, her mother would put baked potatoes into her skates (those skates?) when she went off with them slung over her shoulder. When she got to wherever it was she was going—was it a pond or outdoor rink?—she put the warm skates on and tucked the potatoes into her pockets to keep her hands warm as she skated. Then, on her way home at the end of a cold day, she ate the potatoes. The story gave me another version of my mother, young and intrepid. But I never knew she played hockey.

I wish I still had the skates. In later years, I was given a pair of second-hand tube skates. Not figure skates—I was told tube skates were safer, though I have no idea why. Other girls whirled and swirled and I clumped along, my ankles touching the ice. I never loved skating though in later years I went a couple of times with boyfriends and once, memorably, on my 40th birthday here on the Sechelt Peninsula when Smail’s Pond froze during a particularly cold winter. Somehow we rounded up enough pairs of skates for our whole family, most of them for a dollar or two from the Bargain Barn Thrift Store in Madeira Park, and we spent an afternoon finding our feet on the uneven ice.

I’d love to know more about my mother’s hockey team. Who were these young women, one with a child (or younger sibling), and who were the men who coached them? Was this where she was heading with warm potatoes in her pocket and why would she talk about the potatoes and not the hockey? She looks to be about 18 or 20 so this is probably 1944 or 1945, before she met my father, before the skates got tucked away until a 9 year old girl needed a pair to glide across Kidston Pond on her ankles. I wish I’d known about my mum’s hockey career then. Maybe I’d have appreciated the skates for their own plain legacy instead of wishing them away, wishing for a grace that seemed possible then, if I only had white figure skates and a short velvet skirt.

“a sequence emptied of its numbers…”

morning, looking west

The fire’s made, the beautiful morning moon observed as it heads to the western horizon, and I’ve decided it’s a day to work on a quilt, to put the layers together with long temporary stitches and to figure out a way to quilt them so that the resulting cover is durable. I’m going to use some of last weekend’s indigo-dyed linen and either yellow cotton or deep red flannel for the backing. I bought some soft organic cotton batting for the warm middle layer.

Inside I am stitching a spiral into the layers of the orchard I have pieced together, a snail shell curled into itself. That’s what I’ll see when I’ve finished. I begin the spiral at its very heart, keeping my course as even as I can as it opens out and widens. Not the complicated pathways of the sunflower, some turning left, some right, so that an optimal number of seeds are packed in uniformly, or Romanesco broccoli, its arcs within radii resulting in something so intricately beautiful I wonder how anyone could cut into it to eat it.On windowsills,pinecones. The plump Ponderosas, brought home from the Nicola Valley, and a few long Monticolas. They’re dry, open, but at the base, where their stalk connected them to their trees, two spirals are still visible, like a relaxed embrace, lovers asleep. My spirals are simple, my hands sewing to follow a path from its knotted source, around and around, until I’ve learned that my pleasure comes from the journey itself,a needle leading me outward,towards completion. A quilt elegant and sturdy, a sequence emptied of its numbers.

—from Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

“…which way/ Does the heart go from here?”

mountain, november 3

The other day, I was doing outdoor chores in flip-flops. A light sweater (and shirt-sleeves as I stacked a cord of sweet-smelling fir in the woodshed). But then yesterday, driving home from Sechelt, there was snow by Trout Lake, just a quick flurry, and by the time we neared home, we could see the mountain behind us (Mount Hallowell) was white with new snow. It’s so beautiful. Right now, the clarity of snow and blue sky reminded me of one of my favourite winter poems, though winter is still officially a month and a half away. It’s by Du Fu, that wise sage of the Tang Dynasty.

Beginning of Winter

I sag with age: these martial robes are tight.
Coming home, cold’s colors deepen.
Fishing boats work up the rushing stream.
A hunter’s fire marks the high perched grove.
Long as there’s sun, I drink by leisure’s pools.
When sorrows come, I’ll chant of ancient heroes.
Spears and halberds still can’t be laid by.
To stay, or to serve, which way
Does the heart go from here?