the table is ready

your table is ready

A cold clear day in which I’m preparing to welcome guests for a New Year’s feast of chicken tagine, roasted vegetables, beet and orange salad, and Liz’s Christmas pudding, steamed in beer. The guests are all bringing contributions (oysters from a cold beach have been promised) too so we will not be hungry. There are sparklers and Cava for midnight. The table is ready for the 7 of us and in a few minutes I’m going for the last swim of 2017. Not in the lake, though I’m sure some people participate in that ritual. I’ll do my slow kilometer in the local pool, thinking of the year, its highs and lows.

A friend sent a poem this morning, W.S. Merwin’s “To the New Year”. Its final stanza speaks to me so clearly of the old year and the new year.

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

fast away the old year passes

faux murano

I’m at that point in the year (and my life) when I can’t believe that another year has (almost) passed so quickly. Three more full days and what’s left of this one and we’ll be greeting 2018. And yes, we’ll be doing that here, with friends, maybe even leaving a glass of Laphroaig by the front door for the first footer to bring in, along with a piece of fir from the woodshed, as the rest of us sing “Auld Lang Syne”.

Yesterday morning we woke to snow, enough of it to mean that Angelica’s flight back to Victoria was cancelled and she went by ferry instead, a much longer process. On clear days we can see Vancouver Island from Davis Bay and I remember that Vera Grafton once told me that her father, who lived in Sechelt, courted her mother, who lived in Nanaimo, by canoe. This would have been in the very early days of the 20th century. Not quite spitting distance but a paddling distance for an ardent young man.

And now the snow is melting. The house is so quiet you can hear the drips off the eaves and the big branches of the trees. The decorations — ivy around the windows, tiny lights, the tree itself — look less expectant than patient. They will remain until my birthday, the feast of Epiphany, the ivy dry by then and the fir boughs beginning to lose their needles.

Just now I saw the wine glasses on the table, clean and polished, and waiting to be put back on their shelf on the oak dresser. We’ve been eating our meals since Christmas by the fire so the table still has its festive cloth, the candles on their silver tray (though some of them have burned down to nothing), and a few bits and pieces left over from the feast—a silver serving fork, a bowl. We call these glasses our “faux Murano”. When we went to the island of Murano during a visit to Venice, we thought about buying beautiful wine glasses but didn’t. I still regret this. Several groups of friends have Murano glasses and I don’t know if I’m imaging this but wine tastes even better sipped from a fluted pink glass or a red one with a thin gold-flecked stem. Our faux Muranos came from Capital Iron in Victoria and I suspect they were made in China. Are the decorative elements even real millifiore? Probably not. But they’re generous and beautiful in their own way and will come out again on New Year’s Eve when we’ll take a cup of kindness, as Burns advises in his old wise song. I’ll think of those far away, not within paddling distance, but across mountains and the prairies. For the sake of old times, old years.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

 

 

“…the bells the children could hear…”

santa

I first heard Dylan Thomas’s recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales when I was a teenager. It might have been my favourite high-school English teacher George Kelly who introduced me to that iconic tale. It struck a chord, as it was meant to. (George Kelly was the first person who told me I could be a writer.) I remember making batiked Christmas cards inspired by the Ellen Raskin woodcuts

ellen raskin.jpg

that illustrated the New Directions edition of the, well, not quite a poem, unless one calls it a prose poem. A tale might be the best term for it after all, a summoning, complete with fire and music and cups of good cheer.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

My teen years were filled with yearning. I wanted a life that included beautiful poems, handmade cards, Christmas traditions of nuts and chocolates in pretty foil wraps, even a small ceremony of the tree itself. I wouldn’t have put it like that and that does sound a little shallow, doesn’t it? But I wanted a kind of dense accumulation of Christmases so that each lived within the memory of the ones before it, extending as far back as the first Christmas. I’m not a Christian but I am willing to believe in a sort of miracle this time of year. That a newly-born child might be invested with hope. That stars might be read for their guidance and meaning.

So today we are busy with the work of bringing in our tree from its resting place in the woodshed, bringing out the boxes of ornaments, readying ourselves for the small rituals we have always observed. One of them is the hanging of Brendan’s Santa in the dining area. I imagine he was painted in about five minutes, in kindergarten, and done with the least amount of effort. A few quick brushes of paint, an artful beard, a decision to include a small sack of gifts (looking not unlike a turkey drumstick, or a club), and there you have it: Santa in an insouciant mood, his belt buckle the artist’s own signature.

I can tell by the cold draft at my back that the tree has come in. I can even smell it, the fresh sap of a Douglas fir, the scent of the mountain brought down to a house in the woods where the ceremonies continue. One year John and I were awake early, waiting for the children who were maybe too old to want to race out for their stockings before light. And John said, “What’s that? I think I hear bells.” I listened, and yes, I thought I heard bells too. But it was the metal wind-chimes turning in the wintry air. Or was it?

I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them.

When I came downstairs this morning, I heard the last part of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an annual tradition on the CBC on Christmas Eve day. All that lush language, all that careful detail collected to make an idealized compilation of Christmases past, complete with house fires, ghosts, postmen, and snow. That teenaged girl was listening, as I listened, though I hardly needed to: I know the tale by heart. Last night, driving back from an early supper at the local pub after collecting Angelica from her flight from Victoria, I was already hearing my favourite part.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night.

A few lights blinking on the other side of Sakinaw Lake, the most beautiful stars, and the smoke from our fire waiting for us at home.

 

“The room was suddenly rich…”

rose hips

By my bedroom window this morning, the bright memory of summer roses, the R. canina, soft pink, faintly but sweetly scented. And looking out, I could imagine the roses on those early summer mornings, bees already at work in the pollen. It’s cold here and so soon dark——it’s 4:07 as I type and the sun is setting, fiery as gutted sockeye salmon—  but the roses will be blooming before we know it. This poem, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, has always held the winter’s paradox in its beautiful lines.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

bringing home the tree

rosemary trees

There was never much time for thoughtful reflection all those Christmases when my children were young. Baking, making things, cutting lino for our annual letterpress cards, school parties (including at least two for which my children had promised their teachers I’d provide gingerbread boys for the entire class and then forgot to tell me until bedtime the night before…), the Carol Ships party at Edith Iglauer’s house when we’d all stand on her deck and watch fishing boats strung with lights float by with carolers singing over the dark water. I remember sitting on her low couch afterwards with 3 children sleeping across my lap. I felt things intensely but didn’t seem to have time to think about what they meant, what each thing meant when it was happening, and now it’s part of my vast archive of memories, and I have time to summon up those years and remember them.

Today we cut our Christmas tree. We used to do this on December 23rd or 24th, bringing the tree in on the morning of the 24th to decorate. Some years the tree came from our woods, a weedy fir in danger of being crowded out by the bigger neighbours. Other years we downloaded a permit to cut a tree from under the power lines. We walk there fairly often and keep our eye out for likely candidates. The trees grow to a certain height and then the crews come to cut them and shred them to keep the line clear. This is where we went this year, wanting to have a tree home early as there are several events over the days leading up to Christmas. We had a few in mind. I liked this one’s bendy wood near the top:

bendy wood

This one was clearly a favourite of the Roosevelt elk that roam the lines.

chosen by elk

But then we found the one—

the one

—that we knew would be beautiful dressed in all our old ornaments: the glass stars made by our friend June; the wallpaper trees studded with glittered macaroni; the Chinese paper lanterns sent to John’s family from his grandmother in England shortly after they’d emigrated in the 1950s; the felt birds and wooden fish; lumpy angels; string balls formed over balloons, now collapsed. In short, a lifetime of saving, of storing away a season of memories in a box in a dark closet. This year’s tree is in a bucket of water in the woodshed to be brought inside on the 24th so that we can decorate her with Angelica and the ghosts of all those who’ve helped in the past, some of them gone. Last Christmas it was Forrest, Manon, and Arthur, joined by Angie, and the year before, Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly —and the very beginnings of Henry. Yesterday Brendan sent a video of the children decorating their tree and the most poignant footage of Henry trying to find a way to place a piece of a hairdryer on the tree. He’s 1 and not entirely clear on the concept of ornaments yet. But given what goes on our tree, maybe he’s not far off.

I can see our tree waiting as I work at the kitchen counter, so green against the wall of firewood. Already a squirrel has raced along its branches. I kept peeking out as I rolled out shortbread fish and stars and the special ones cut into trees and studded with rosemary leaves (as Ophelia told Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…”, and she of all people knew about herbs and their latent power). I was listening to satellite radio as I cut and baked and found myself in tears hearing a Richard Thompson song I’d never known:

In the old cold embers of the year
When joy and comfort disappear
I search around to find her
I’m a hundred miles behind her
The open road whispered in her ear

And she never could resist a winding road…

Somehow it seemed to be about our tree as I walked behind John back to the vehicle. You can’t see our Element. It’s beyond the bend in that winding road. Joy hasn’t disappeared but it’s cold out and we need to remember that trees come in during the shortest days to remind us of what comes next. The light returning, little by little, and if we take care of our fires, the embers will last.

cut.jpg

we were never going to be old

jp-tk

Today is my husband John‘s 70th birthday. When we met in 1979, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together. And we have. We’ve done what we hoped to: built a house, planted trees, written books, loved 3 children to adulthood, and now have the pleasure of our grandchildren. There have been dark times, of course, and I suspect there will be more. But this morning, by the woodstove, watching my beloved open gifts—Jorie Graham’s new collection, Fast; a beautiful scarf; a couple of bottles of special red wine; condiments and implements from Ottawa; Colm Toibin’s study of Elizabeth Bishop; tickets to the Vancouver Symphony—I saw the young man who captured my heart when I heard him read poems at Open Space in Victoria with bill bissett. Did he read from Love’s Confidence that evening? I can’t remember. But opening it now, I read the last poem, and hope for decades yet, that opening for the moon.

Finally

Taken out
of myself
the words are

a special green
of leaves beneath
the streetlamp.

I want to go on.
I want the poem
it could be

the opening the clouds
make for the moon.

winter work

winter work

It’s cold out and the fire is warm, the coffee dark and strong. I’m thinking about the past year, how it was filled with strange medical adventures, a few wonderful road trips (Waterton Lakes before the fire with its hills covered in arrow-leaved balsamroot, bluebirds on the fence-posts, bighorn sheep watching us eat breakfast at the Prince of Wales Hotel), time with friends and family. Oh, and a book, Euclid’s Orchard. I suspect I may have posted this passage before but I’m doing this exact thing today and everything that has ever happened seems to happen again. Or at least that’s what I want to believe.

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

“Standing under the stars last night”

june's glass

Last night we had dinner with friends over at Oyster Bay. 6 of us sat in a kitchen that hangs out over the water at high tide (this kitchen was once a float-house; a number of the old houses in this community were, pulled to shore after the logging camps went broke) and ate good food, talked into the night. Coming home, there were elk (again!) crossing the highway by the golf course, their huge bodies dissolving into darkness as they entered the woods. When we arrived home, we stood in the driveway for a few minutes, hoping to see one of the Geminid meteors. It was too cold to linger long and no meteors shot across the sky but oh, the stars! So many, the constellations silver in the dark sky. You could almost hear them burning so brightly, almost.

We gave ourselves this piece of glass last Christmas. It was made by our friend June who was at the dinner party. It’s different in every season—I can say that now, having seen it for a year, hanging in our big window. Looking at it, I think of stars being born, dying, and planets whirling in the huge cosmic space. I think of salmon eggs in the nearby creek, buried in sand, and some of them floating down to the lake where mergansers wait to feast on them. I think of cells, of the smallest building blocks of life, replicating themselves. So of much this happens in darkness.

Last night we talked of books, ideas, our lives, all of which have been connected for more 30 years. Our children know one another. We’ve attended their weddings, felt pleasure in the news of the births of babies. The Christmas bags I left with them contain homemade things and the ones we brought back promise the same. The world goes on, damaged and impossibly beautiful. We’re part of that, the damage and the beauty. The other day we spent time making our annual contributions to organizations we support, small drops in the huge stream of what’s needed. But like cells, like those eggs in the gravel on the bottom of Haskins Creek, maybe our offerings will grow.

Standing under the stars last night, I thought of John Haines, his wonderful memoir of 25 years in the Alaska wilderness. It’s a cold book, even the chapters set in spring and summer. His was a solitary life, at least the life recorded in this book. But oh, the beauty:

     The stars are brilliant—Polaris and the Dipper overhead. Through a space in the trees to the south I can see part of the familiar winter figure of Orion, his belt and sword; in the north I see a single bright star I think is Vega. I hear an occasional wind-sigh from the dome, and now and then moving air pulls at the spruces around me.

What does a person do in a place like this, so far away and alone? For one thing, he watches the weather—the stars, the snow and the fire. These are the books he reads most of all.

—from The Stars, The Snow, The Fire

 

“And look! she comes…”

after fog

The fog has lifted. On a walk to scout out possible Christmas trees, the prints of wolves (we thought) on the track. And rosehips, bare trunks of alders. Everything so beautiful and so finely-wrought.

The Muse

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command
Whatever I cherish most—youth, freedom, glory–
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes…she tosses back her veil,
staring me down. serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?”She answers: “Yes.’

— Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

“the house hidden in dense fog”

beginning

The fog that hangs in the air these December days seems fitting, somehow. Everything is muted and quiet. And how beautiful to see a light in a window, a candle. Our fall was filled with unexpected events, changes. A small medical procedure for John gone rogue and that led to a surgery a month later. Which meant cancelling our plans to fly to Ottawa for a week. He’s feeling much better though and stronger every day so on Wednesday we went to Vancouver to see the Arts Club production of Onegin. It was truly wonderful, transporting in the way that good theatre can be. We saw a matinee and afterwards planned to have dinner at our hotel, also on Granville Island. Wandering back from a shopping expedition to buy indigo at Maiwa, I passed the Liberty Distillery and looked in its windows to see a lovely room lit by small fairy lights. I brought John back so we could have a cocktail in that room with its long antique bar. We are not much for cocktails. We like wine, beer when the moment is right, a dram of good single-malt sometimes, but cocktails, gin particularly, have always struck me as mother’s ruin. The delicious taste of botanicals can seduce one (me, anyway) into thinking I’m drinking something harmless, benign! But I had a gorgeous concoction of pink gin flavoured with rose-petals and rosehips and John had something with vodka, I think, well-fortified with ginger. I was offered a choice of tonics and I asked for the regular one, not wanting anything to detract from the rose-petals and hips; but what would the elderflower tonic have tasted like? We’ll have to return to Liberty Distillery to find out.

I spent the next morning with a young photographer, Alexandra Bolduc. The Montreal publisher bringing out a French language edition of Patrin in 2018 wanted a current photograph of me for the press’s website. (This is Marchand de Feuilles.) And somehow the fog, the bare trees, the glimpses of water seemed right for my book and its atmospheres.

This morning it’s still foggy and somehow a little sombre. Like so many other people I know, I’m finding the current political climate, the global one made loud and ugly by that vulgar and dangerous president to the south, anyway, I’m finding it troubling beyond words. I’ve been sending letters to our Provincial Government, asking them to suspend work on the Site C Dam on the Peace River. I dream of flattened landscapes, of fire, of violence. And yet Christmas approaches. Ours will be quiet. Angelica is coming for a few days and I think I will roast a duck this year for the three of us. (Turkey is great when you want lots of leftovers but do we?) I made gingerbread boys* to include in the parcels that have already been mailed to Edmonton and Ottawa. I am thinking about fruitcake, the white chocolate one I make with tawny fruits and rum. There are a couple of parties in the next week and it will be good to hear the old songs, eat some festive food. I brought a bottle of Liberty Distillery gin home with me and who knows, maybe one of those cocktails will occasionally replace the customary glass of wine by the fire before it’s time to cook dinner.

And in the meantime, I’ve begun quilting the big length of rough linen dyed in October. I didn’t even wonder about what to do with it, simply begin stitching a spiral. It’s a way of thinking for me, thinking with my hands, finding a way to make sense of things. Holding the weight of a quilt-in-process on my lap, finding the best way to hold its layers together for warmth and beauty, the house hidden in dense fog, its lights glowing.

*I have tried for gender diversity with the gingerbread shapes. I bought a girl cutter, for instance, but somehow the dough doesn’t like to be cut with that one. I can’t get the dough to let go of the metal. An angel? Same thing. So boys it is, with Smartie buttons and dragée eyes. And also coyotes howling at the moon, fish, stars, lobsters (though those shapes are also difficult to use), pigs, trees, stars…