coyote time


Just now John called me to the kitchen because he was watching two coyotes trot through what used to be our orchard. They were moving along the perimeter, between open ground and the forest. Our cat, Winter, has been very skittish lately, wanting to go out and then wanting back in again very quickly so I’ve half-expected to hear coyotes in the night. For many years, we’ve heard them in the woods to the south of our house, a mating pair, and we’ve seen the offspring from time to time, including the pup in the image above a few years ago. The pair we just saw might be the constant couple or else a new pair but this is obviously part of their territory because I sometimes see one or more passing my study window. I’m here now, with a camera ready.

Here’s a passage from the title essay of my collection, Euclid’s Orchard:

At my desk, I look up to see two large brindled coyotes lope out of the bush and across the grass in front of my study. In the past, I’ve heard coyotes in the woods just south of our house and suspect there’s a den there used year after year. Once, reading in bed late at night, my husband and I heard a pair mating— the rhythmic grunts and growls, the high-pitched squeals, a passionate duet, tempo changing until all we could hear was an urgent expressive finale, and then silence. Though running, these two also seemed at ease in their surroundings, coming out of the woods where there’s a rough game trail used by deer and elk, and crossing the grass as though they’d done it many times before, on their way to the orchard. I called my husband to see, but by the time we opened the back door, they’d disappeared.

Courtepointe, on Mona’s counter


Very excited to receive this photograph of the French translation of PatrinCourtepointe—newly arrived in my (English-language) publisher Mona Fertig’s kitchen! The whole experience, from the interest shown by Mélanie Vincelette at Marchand de Feuilles, to a wonderful photography session with Alexandra Bolduc, has been lovely. I look forward to reading my novella in Annie Pronovost’s translation! And of course we toasted this new book just now but I wish we’d had some of the Czech wine Patrin (and her creator) love: Veltlínské Zelené.

“creeks in the darkness”

bridge over Rosebud River
bridge over the Rosebud River, April, 2016

I am currently at work on an essay about rivers and blood clots. An odd combination, I know, but I seem to have a clotting disorder (I’m waiting to see a hematologist for further tests) and it’s made me think a little more seriously about how our venous system works. How everything flows normally and then doesn’t. And of course that led me to think about rivers, the ones I love and return to, and how they change too for reasons that have some similarities to what happens with our veins. So it’s very absorbing, this essay, and I woke this morning with that kind of excitement I’ve always felt as I enter the deep waters of writing. It’s leading me to the north, to the MacKenzie River, where we were lucky enough to spend a few days in Fort Simpson at break-up, and to Englishman River, where I camped as a child and then as a young woman in desperate straits, and this morning to the Rosebud River as we drove it two springs ago very early and stopped at the aqua bridge between Wayne and Rosedale to listen to magpies. And in my mind is how to keep the various strands winding around each other, as the channels of braided rivers split and rejoin, as banks erode and are changed over years or centuries.

A deep cramping pain. Some swelling. In the Emergency room, my history is taken. Pulmonary embolism a year ago. Suspected deep vein thrombosis. 6 months of blood thinners. Many scans and tests.

A lab technician is called from his bed to take my blood for a d-dimer test to determine if there is active clot activity. An ultrasound is set for the next morning, though it is well into that morning when the technician draws blood from the pool of my right arm. I do not wait for the results because I want some sleep and the person in the other bed is on a powerful narcotic that makes her itchy, causes her to moan on her side of the screen that separates us. The medical staff is not happy I’m leaving.

We drive home on a dark highway. It’s a 45 minute journey and after 30 minutes the Emergency room physician phones me on my husband’s cell phone. In the car, the loud opening chords of “Sultans of Swing”, a moment when I regret he didn’t set his ring tone to something sweet—the Brahms lullaby or “That Sheep May Safely Graze”—as I struggle to stab in the right place to answer it. The physician tells me that my d-dimer test is positive for blood clotting, that I may have a DVT, and that I must return immediately to begin a course of anticoagulants.

As I’ll be coming in later in the morning for an ultrasound, I can’t just wait until then?”

No, I must insist you come back now.”

So we turn around and head back, my husband silent with weariness. He won’t let me drive. About halfway to the hospital, we see a large animal on the side of the highway. Not large like elk, which we see quite often. And not a coyote. Bigger than that. It takes a moment or two, and the glare of the animal’s golden eyes, for us to realize we’re seeing a cougar. I’ve lived on this peninsula for 35 years and I’ve seen just two cougars in that time. I’ve heard two more, I think, but sightings are rare.

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.


“between the history/and the archives”


When you spend nearly 40 years with a person, particularly a writer, you hear a lot of stories. There’s one my husband John has told many times about his summer as a fledgling archivist, “apprenticed” to Major Matthews, and it has always intrigued me. A poem written that same summer seemed to me to lay out the story on the grass by English Bay and in my mind I saw the story—

rolled out
in a noon-hour

between the history
and the archives

And now he’s written it down! You can read it here:

“Here again is the usual door.”

bucket list

A winter visit from my family, a run of mild days, and time by water: these are some of my favourite things to help with the dark days. These, and re-reading essays I’ve always loved, finding in them passages to serve as signposts for the years ahead.

Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”, for example, in which Woolf offers a kind of walking guide for exploring the evening streets.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

When the familiar, in other words, becomes something other, luminous and shimmering, because of a walker’s altered perspective.

Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet.

We’ve been doing things we usually do in summer, walking to Francis Point to look at crabs,

francis point

and taking coffee and muffins down to Ruby Lake in the unexpected warmth of a January morning:

by water

And in winter, they are unexpectedly sweet for all that is contained of other seasons, other excursions to beloved places, for swimming and the sight of ducklings, for long sunsets and the evening calls of the common loons.

At bedtime last night I was reading Orwell’s wonderful “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, which I first read as a teenager, and which still feels true:

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money…

My grandson keeps me company when I’m at my desk and he opens the baskets I have all around me, the ones with feathers, with ancient notes to self, stones, the emptied egg case of a skate (or mermaid’s purse, we always called them), a bit of charred embossed tin ceiling panel from the old townsite of Granite Creek, a few fossils from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He opens the baskets and each thing is new to him, and to me, who looks at it as a child looks at a stone or feather, curious and enthralled. After he leaves this weekend, I’ll hear his voice calling out in huge excitement as his father carefully overturned rocks to reveal the tiny crabs scuttling for cover, and his delight as he crept into a hollow in a huge cedar on one side of the trail down to the water. None of this cost us a penny, not for the light or the water or the sound of his voice in the surprising warm air. And when we drove* home in darkness, after a meal at the pub, there was moonlight on the driveway, a scattering of stars, smoke in the air from our fire. “Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it.

*ok, so we had to pay for gas….





baa, baa, mouton noir

My French vocabulary is improving by the hour. Baa baa mouton noir,/As-tu de la laine? Yes, sir, no, sir,/Trois poches pleines. My grandson Arthur is here for a week and he moves effortlessly from French to English in the same sentence, the same nursery rhyme. He is two but can already read confusion on his grandmother’s face when he asks me a question I can’t understand and he switches languages. Did you know that owl is “hibou”? I have a package of owl tattoos and we are all wearing them on the backs of our hands; I keep replacing Arthur’s because they have a way of disappearing. Last night, returning from dinner with friends, Arthur and his dad went out for a starry walk (when Forrest was two, it was one of his favourite things to do with his dad…). There was a little foggy moon (La lune!) and a few stars barely visible and when Forrest tried to call owls — Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? — Arthur nervously (and sleepily) wanted to come in. A hibou is just fine on your hand but what if one approached you in the night with its eyes glowing? There are barred owls in our woods and soon they’ll be mating and we’ll hear them clearly in the darkness. By then, Arthur will be safely back in Ottawa. In the meantime, he loved looking at a video of owls this morning and didn’t blanch at the sight of one tearing a mouse apart.

watching the owl video


the optimus

When I was 23, I went away to Ireland to live for as long as my money lasted. I had $1200, mostly because I sold my little Datsun and a Walter J. Phillips woodcut I’d bought with some excess scholarship money a few years before. I’ve written about that time in my novella, Inishbream, as well an essay, “The One Currach Returning Alone”, in Phantom Limb. It was a strange and beautiful time of my life. I’d gone because I felt I’d burned my bridges in Victoria—several failed romances, a difficult relationship with a much-older painter, the sense that I needed to be alone in a way I couldn’t be in a place where I was known; I was young, remember, and not unfamiliar with drama…. I didn’t know where I’d go after the cottage someone had offered me turned out to be unsuitable (it was remote and people had camped in it and burned the floorboards for warmth…this wasn’t discovered until I was taken there to settle in) but luckily I had subsistence supplies: my down sleeping bag and a small Optimus stove my father had given me. I was willing to live quite rough (though I did think floorboards were a necessity, not a luxury). I wanted to try to find out if I was truly a writer. I wanted to test myself in ways I couldn’t really have articulated but somehow I knew I needed to try to find out what I could live without and what I could do in complete isolation. (Remember, I said I was not unfamiliar with drama.) Through a series of lucky encounters, I was led to an island off the Galway coast and a little cottage facing north. I had a big fireplace for heat and a small pile of turf to burn, along with any sticks I could scavenge on the beach, and I had an oil lamp for light. And candles. My down sleeping bag came in handy but I never did need my Optimus stove because the cottage came with a small propane stove. I had to lug the bottle (the islanders called the tanks “bottles”) over to the mainland and get it somehow to the nearest town when I needed a refill so I didn’t cook much, apart from steaming mussels from the rocks below my cottage, cooking nettles into soup, and making rice from the five pound bag I found in a health food store in Galway.

Sometimes I dream of that time so vividly that I wake in tears. I feel such tenderness for that young woman and her loneliness. Last night we were talking in bed and I sipped some Laphroaig, inhaling its wonderful aroma of seaweed and smoky peat, and maybe that’s why I dreamed again of Ireland. Not because I could afford fine single-malt. I couldn’t. I could barely afford the rice. But the turf fire often crozzled and I’d lean into the fireplace, adding bits of stick to try to encourage it to catch and the smoke permeated my sweater. It’s a beautiful smell, I think, and it lasted for ages in the big rough wool sweater I lived in that year. I’d sleep with my window open to the iodine tang of the ocean and it made me dream of storms, of drowning. Sometimes I’d hear a tinwhistle in my dreams, but it was almost certainly the man who played on the little lane above my house. He’d lean over the stone wall and the music would waver in the wind. By the time it found my open window, it was unearthly.

So last night, Ireland, and the Optimus stove, unused, but given pride of place on the table in my cottage. Just in case.

This is all so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tinwhistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along.

—from “The One Currach Returning Alone”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

“I am haunted by waters.”


“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

“in a way remembering”

Years ago, in Yellowknife, I saw an exhibit of Gwich’in caribou skin clothing at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. I was enthralled by the gorgeous handwork, the unity of practical and beautiful, and this morning, looking for something else on my shelves, I found the book I bought at the time, Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember, by Judy Thompson and Ingrid Kritsch. It tells the story of Gwich’in women brought together to sew traditional summer clothing using some 19th century examples from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (later renamed the Canadian Museum of History). It’s worth looking for, 143 in the Mercury Series. Women carefully examine the quillwork and beadwork used as embellishment and realize that many of them are things they’ve adapted over the years. They know how to do this work even though perhaps they haven’t worked with skins for some time.

I see great possibilities with this technique [porcupine quillwork]. I think what I’d start off with is just putting it in tiny places, like the collar or the pocket, before I start anything extravagant. I’d like to just keep things simple. Even in my fabric art, I think I see possibilities. It would make a pretty good rainbow or Northern Lights. (Margaret Donovan, Tsiigehtchic, 2001)

I’ve been working on my indigo quilt this weekend, having replenished my shell button supply at the wonderful Button Button.


I use akoya buttons but if I had unlimited funds for such things, I’d choose abalone for their green-y splendor. And I know what Margaret Donovan means. I’ve been concluding my quilted spirals with a single button, using varying sizes depending on what feels right.

recent spiral

But what I’d really love to do, and maybe work up to trying, is trying to gather firelight into the stitching, trying for the kind of light I see looking into water. The Gwich’in women had each other to work with and I sew alone, in my quiet kitchen. This work is so meditative. I stitch and release what I can do nothing about, I gather all my hopes and my love for the world into each spiral. Some days I come into the kitchen and see the quilt waiting in a wicker chair by the door and I’m filled with pleasure at the thought of time spent sewing, thinking, and yes, in a way remembering.

waiting blossoms


“Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”

I’ve recently finished reading Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Following the River: Traces of Red River Women in which she travels both physically and imaginatively through the country where her great-grandmother Catherine lived and died. Rupert’s Land, Selkirk, Norway House, Warren’s Landing—all these places hold traces of the family story. I won’t tell it here. But it’s worth reading, both for the elusive strands that have been painstakingly recovered, in part or in whole, and woven into something both practical (because we need these records of our ancestors to help us understand our own place in the world) and beautiful, and for the deep sense of the land and what it remembers (those traces). Abandoned graveyards, modest monuments to lost or murdered young women, foundations of buildings long fallen to earth. There’s poetry here, there’s prayer, there’s the simple naming of names in all their possible variants, from both English and the different dialects of Cree that shaped Lorri’s family.

My family history began on a different continent. But there were many moments when I saw in Lorri’s book something of my own attempts to parse the language of old documents and photographs, some of this in a language as difficult to shape in my mouth as Cree was for Lorri. Sometimes what I tried to read wasn’t language at all but images. It was often strange and frustrating but then there’d be a moment when I understood what I was seeing. Lorri realizes that a photograph of her great-grandmother with her husband and children was taken after Catherine’s death and that Catherine’s head has been imposed upon another woman’s body for the sake of the photograph. Thinking about Catherine’s daughter, Lorri’s own grandmother, she wonders, “What must it have been like to stand behind someone else’s body wearing your mother’s clothes, holding still until the exposure was complete, feeling such profound absence?”

I had such a moment with my musings about family photographs and I remembered writing about it on this blog. Here is a post from July, 2011, as I was finalizing the proofs of my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees.

 The Moirs Happiness Package


In my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, there’s an essay about my father and his father. I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather and in this piece, I try to puzzle through the mysteries of family connection, try to find traces of my grandfather through the small clues in my father’s stories, the tiny hoard of memories. At one point, I was thinking about two photographs in the basement of my parents’ home in Victoria. This is what I wrote about one of those photographs:

“In the second photograph, my father stands in his white shirt, short pants, dark stockings, and boots on a rattan chair. Someone has told him to stand still, because there is nothing natural about his pose. But — and here’s the bizarre thing — hovering in the air, as though balanced on the arm of the chair, is the swaddled form of his sister Julia, who died three years before he was born. This is the late 1920s, before Photoshop — before any of the techniques we are now so accustomed to using. I know that photographers could manipulate images even in the nineteenth century (I think of Hannah Maynard in Victoria with her trick portraits and artistic interpretations). But this is clearly the work of someone who didn’t have much skill at all. The half of the photograph in which baby Julia has been inserted is blurry.

That only this one photograph survives suggests that although money was probably in short supply, my grandparents wanted a record of the two children they had conceived together. Perhaps they were more sentimental than I’ve been led to believe, because what other reason would result in an image of a baby being inserted into the photograph of her brother-to-be, at least five years after her death? Julia was nearly three when she died, and yet the photograph is of an infant, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a hat against the cold.

Photographs are intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. I’ve tried to read these ones for hidden narratives of love and family connection and perhaps I’ve interpreted them completely incorrectly. Still, sometimes photographs with their cryptic stories and forgotten conclusions are all we have.”

I wrote the essay as my father was dying and since then my mother has died as well. I brought home that photograph (a grainy image clumsily cut to fit in a wooden frame) and many boxes of family papers which I’ve been slow to sort. Every time I open a box, the smell of the past – dust, old cigarette smoke, the sadness of missed or lost connections – overpowers me and I close it again, thinking that the time will come when I’m more resilient or at least able to look at the materials without crying.

The day before yesterday, I opened one of the boxes, determined to put together some photographs for a family project. The problem is, nothing is sorted or organized, so in some ways, I’ve no idea where to look. There are some albums, yes, but then there are also envelopes with bank statements, stray photographs caught between them, or my high school report cards shoved into folders with baby pictures, drawings, my grandmother’s naturalization papers from 1937, etc. Where to begin?

I began with the Moirs Happiness Package, a chocolate box with a bluebird on it, and the slogan, “There’s happiness in every box.” Inside, a small collection of  photographs, all of them bent and foxed, and all of them as astonishing to me as anything I’ve ever seen. My father was the only surviving child of his mother’s second marriage. The first child of that union was Julia. She died of diphtheria, I believe, and is buried in Drumheller, Alberta, where the family lived. There are two photographs of Julia’s funeral. One shows a group of solemn people in front on a bleak house, the men and women dressed in dark suits, the girls (some of them must be the daughters of my grandmother’s first marriage) in white dresses and veils. A small white casket is set on a wooden bench. The second photograph is taken inside. The casket is on a table covered with a starched white cloth and is flanked by two girls in white. A child’s face can be seen surrounded by flowers: Julia.

There are two other photographs, too, which I realized were the ones which had been brought together to create the large image of my father and his sister. What’s amazing is that there are notes on the back of them, obviously the work of the person charged with “regrouping”. Notes about tint and placement. “Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”


There’s so much I don’t know. I want to find out more about my grandmother, a woman who was born in Horni Lomna, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1881 and who left, with her first husband, Joseph Yopek, in 1913. He died of flu in 1918 and she was left with 8 children. She married my grandfather a year or two later (I should know when and will try to find out), giving birth to Julia, and to my father, in 1926.

Our recent house-guests from the Czech Republic, Petr and Lenka, showed me pictures of Horni Lomna. It’s a small village in Moravia, nestled in the Beskydy Mountains. When John and I return to the Czech Republic next February, I intend to go to my grandmother’s birthplace and see if anything remains – a name in a cemetery, in a parish record, perhaps.

And a coda to that post. I did go to my grandmother’s birthplace and although I couldn’t enter the graveyard because of snow several feet deep, I did walk down a road by the Lomna River to stand in the snow and look at the house where she was raised, where she lived with her parents and her five children while her first husband went to Canada to make a home for them to come to the next year (1913). What happened then is the subject of a long essay in my most recent book, Euclid’s Orchard. And yes, it involves photographs, old documents, reading a landscape as foreign to me as the languages my grandparents spoke.