night writing

sweet peas

These days it’s too hot to do much but keep up with the watering, the general chores around the house, some reading in the afternoon when the sun is right overhead and everything outside is quietly frying. Radio news always ends with heat warnings, how important it is to stay hydrated, and updates about fires. Last year we lost many young cedars. It took 6 months for it to be clear they were dead—they lost fronds last summer and then seemed a bit more lively in the fall. But now we can see they’re dead and we’re waiting for B.C. Hydro crews to clear the ones close to the power lines (a guy came and identified 7 that he said were a potential hazard and those were ones Hydro crews would cut down because of their proximity to wires). Some of the others are more difficult. And right now we wouldn’t use a chain saw in the dry woods in any case.

What is lovely though: the small hours of coolness, after midnight but before dawn. I’ve been getting up most nights to make use of them. I come down the dark stairs, feeling my way with my toes. There’s moonlight in the living room, enough to help me find my way to my study without turning on any lights. By feel again, I turn the switch on my little desk lamp. Cool air comes in the big window that my desk faces.

I have two works-in-progress: my [unpublishable] novella about a young woman looking for traces of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson in the dry Interior of B.C., mapping their works in an attempt to create a feminine (or feminist) cartography; and a sequence of linked essays exploring (again) family history. I am trying to figure out stuff about my grandfather’s early years in Bukovina and in North America, reading social histories of Ukrainian immigrants as well as Anne Applebaum’s extraordinary Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, to understand something of the place he left and what might have been the fate of those family members who remained.

In the night, so much seems possible. That knowing a few names and a place of origin might miraculously produce a long-lost family or that following a young woman in her beat-up truck along the road up the Deadman River or north-west of Clinton to Dog Creek will reveal contours and wildflowers equivalent to a woman’s body, her apprehension of a landscape both peopled and barren.

And what I also do in the night is remember wonderful meals and how the details of a dinner in Prague are also the details of family history. By writing the table, I hope to find everything.

What wine would you recommend, we asked the waiter, who was friendly, using American idioms in his greeting (“How you guys doing? Take a load off, my friend.”) which fooled us into thinking his English was better than it was. Wine, he answered (or echoed), and brought us a bottle of Modry Portugal, pouring it with a flourish as we ordered our meal. The delicious česnečka for me –garlic broth, soft potato, with cubes of fried bread and grated cheese. John ordered chicken livers with almonds and was surprised to be presented with a plate of prawns. The waiter’s obvious pride in the dish and our growing suspicion that his English was illusory (as indeed was our Czech, and we were in his city after all) stopped John from making any fuss, though we were so far from any ocean. And then a wonderful gulas, which reminded me of an aunt’s recipe passed along to my mother, one I always assumed was Hungarian, from my uncle’s side of the family, not realizing that it probably came from my grandmother. (Those porous borders, that history.)The guláš was served with houskový knedlik, bread dumplings that soaked up the copious gravy.

And the wine? Beautiful. Ruby coloured, light, and perfect with the food. Later, in Brno, we were told that “modry” means blue. And Portugal, I asked? Well, just Portugal. (There’s a story that an Austrian brought the grape from Oporto to his estate near Vienna in the late-18th century but ampelographers, who use genetic fingerprinting to pinpoint the identity and origins of vines, dispute this provenance.)

I think now of the difficulties in my search for my own origins – the pruned shoots of my mother’s family tree, the tangled roots of my father’s, with grafts and sports on every limb. And drinking a wine like Blue Portugal seems the perfect accompaniment to both the search and the failure.

—from “Blue Portugal”, an essay-in-progressN

“Don’t fall out, Parva! Be careful.”

Some days I wonder if I should continue with this blog. Almost everything I have to say, I’ve said! Almost every moment I want to record has already been noted and written about. Last night we were on the deck, having a glass of wine before dinner (how many times have I said that?), and I saw activity at the nesting box on a nearby fir. It’s the box that was formerly in the nearby arbutus but we need to have some dead branches cut away from the arbutus and thought we’d move the box before nesting season. The boxes were built for violet-green swallows but they are the preferred home of the chestnut-backed chickadees, the ones I feed all winter and who come to my kitchen window on the mornings when their feeder is empty.

Anyway, activity. I know the couple nested in May and those young fledged. And the couple are nesting again. We’ve seen them going in and out. But the feeding has taken on a certain urgency and we know that the young are about to fledge. I thought it might be happening last evening because the parents darted in and out, then made a lot of noise from nearby trees. One young one was hanging out the opening, probably because it was so hot. I’d filled the nearby birdbath so the parents could take in water as well as food. Here’s the youngster waiting for its parents.

this year's young

So the young wait at the opening, the parents work hard to keep them fed, and soon, maybe even today, those chicks will fly. We see it and then we see it again and it’s always astonishing. I wrote about it two years ago and I know I was thinking of my faraway children, and their children. This morning I am still thinking about them, anticipating the arrival of some of them this weekend and early next week. I don’t know if these particular chickadee parents are the same ones I watched in May of 2016 or if they’re long gone and these are the young they raised then, or later, or earlier. It all goes on. We go on. And what I wrote then in Mnemonic is still true:

How time passes, how everything we knew is stored in our own bodies — the dull ache of sleepless nights, the sharp yearning for love, the sorrow of these empty rooms once filled with children laughing, fighting; their books, their toys, their filthy socks, and tiny overalls. One boy still sits under the original nest box (though I know it’s not possible, he lives in Ottawa) with his notebook, trying to sketch the swallow nestling that hangs out the opening, saying, Don’t fall out, Parva! Be careful. And I stand out among the trees, under stars, while the moon thins and fattens, turns soft gold in autumn, hangs from the night’s velvet in February, draws me out on summer evenings to drink a glass of wine while owls fill the darkness with that question: Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? It was always me and I never once minded.



when a book is a companion

bucket list

This is where I swim most mornings from late June until October. I love the water and have been swimming in this lake since 1980. There have been some changes around the lake but not many. My children swam daily, in summers, all the years they lived here and returning, it still brings them to its shores at least once a day. I’ve always understood that it was once an ocean inlet and that the water at the very bottom is salty. I know it’s deep. And one summer there were jelly-fish in the lake. One summer, leeches. Cutthroat trout. Last week I saw loons, a family of them, and there are mergansers, mallards, heron, eagles, Canada geese, stands of huge firs and cedars along the lake, little pockets of wild mint, arbutus, hardhack (which is blooming now), a few of the beautiful Pacific rhododendrons at the far end by the ecological reserve, Nootka roses, sweet gale, and whew, I didn’t mean to write the lake shore but it seems I have. This is partly because I’m reading the most wonderfully companionable book right now, Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she details the lakes she swims in around Berlin over the course of a year, sometimes cutting through the ice to make a place large enough for her to submerge her body for a brief dip.

Jessica is an environmental historian, tracing landscape changes on Hampstead Heath in London, and part of the book’s narrative follows her as she works on her dissertation. She says, “I”m not trained as a scientist, but an environmental historian must be adaptable. For this reason, I jump between history, ethnograph(y) and botany. Archives, interviews and plant keys. As a swimmer, limnology is another kind of key. A way to read the lakes.” And this is a thread that guides the reader as it guides the author. Water quality and how it shapes the experience of someone swimming the lakes is affected by so many things and we see them from the perspective of a woman who notices the plants, algae, mushrooms by the shore, plantings near the shores, whether the water bodies are naturally-occurring or anthropogenic (old quarries and so on), and how widely the lakes are used seasonally.

She is interested in language, too, and how it shapes our understanding of a landscape.

It starts with a marsh. Birch wood gives way to straight, skinny alder, sunken deep in the marsh along the River Briese, which cuts north of the city. A successful stage between swamp and forest, this Erlenbruchwald is known in English as a ‘carr’. Like ‘Berlin’, ‘carr’ basically means ‘swamp’.

[As an aside: I wondered at the etymology of Briese. Was the river named for Bri(e)seis, the woman taken by Agamemnon from Achilles in the Iliad? But no, it seems the root is “breza”, an Old Slavonic word for birch…]

Turning is about swimming, yes, and it’s about love, about estrangement—from our bodies, from our families—and how we make that turn back to wholeness. It’s no accident that Jessica’s swims are always towards the centres of the lakes. On a swim just before flying to Canada for Christmas:

I slip into the water and it’s exactly as I expect: bracing cold, the metallic feeling of its grey sliding over me. I swim out to the centre, counting my strokes, longing to be out and dry away. I count to sixty and then turn back. Better things wait for me in the days ahead: warmth, light and respite from the grey of the city. When I come back, I hope it will have turned to white.

The book takes us through the places (Canada, Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, London and Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond), plunges us into  lakes while reminding us of their unique seasonal stratifications, and is the most congenial book to read after a morning swim in Ruby Lake where the water is green and familiar. I have two short chapters to go and I’m going to make them last. And I must confess that the author’s bold habit of swimming in winter might just be infectious. Here’s what our lake looked like two winters ago, on New Year’s Eve:

arthur at ruby lake

It’s tempting.

postcard from Gannoghs


Yesterday we were driving home from another medical appointment and I heard a song on the radio that I kind of liked. What I liked was the chorus:

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean
Where the trees make a canopy
And the moonlight is golden
We could make this a beautiful life
Come on let me show you
In a rented caravan

It reminded me of 39 years ago, in July, when I lived for a month in a small caravan on the edge of the ocean in Gannoghs, a townland in Connemara, not far from Cleggan. I spent two months in Ireland that summer, one of them in a cottage and then in the caravan. It was not fancy but I didn’t want fancy. I wanted a quiet place, in sight (almost) of the island where I’d lived the previous year and which was the muse (that’s not too exaggerated) for the novella I was finishing. After returning from that island, I’d met John and we’d decided to spend our lives together but first I wanted to finish my novella and that meant returning to Ireland.

The caravan had a bed that was stored in a wall and you unlatched it each evening. The view was a field and rocks and the water. There were cows in the field and they rubbed against the caravan. The first time they did it I thought I was the middle of the earthquake but then I heard them stomping around. There was also a neighbour, Bridget King, who lent me a bicycle and who visited most days. She was forgetful and sometimes she came more than once. She made a “cooey, cooey” sound as she rapped on the door with her stick. To get to the caravan you had to cross a stone fence and then push aside a tangle of fuchsia. Usually I heard Bridget but sometimes she caught me unaware.

John came in August and we spent a week in the caravan before going off on further adventures, including a week in Paris. I took him to meet Bridget, thinking that might forestall a visit from her. She lived in a cottage her husband had built with her help and she told me how they’d made the potato beds, draping seaweed over the rocky ground until there was enough depth for planting. (Gannoughs means “a place of stones”.) She had running cold water but no hot and she was elderly and her cottage needed a good cleaning. She had an old goose wing she used to sweep the table with, the crumbs and other bits and pieces landing on the floor. She found three mugs for the tea she offered us and wiped them out with a cloth that had seen better days. I was used to this but John had trouble drinking his tea. I should have warned him too not to take milk. There wasn’t a fridge.

This morning there was something in the air that reminded me of the caravan. The windows were loose in their frames and on a windy day the whole place smelled of ocean. The pages of the novella I was writing, by hand, scattered over the table and benches at the prow of the caravan where you could sit and feel that you were in the prow of a boat. The glass was even scoured by salt.

So that’s the postcard I send today, just before we head out for the follow-up to yesterday’s appointment. The moonlight was golden and we did build a beautiful life, one that goes on, despite the medical mysteries.

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean


a river nearby


After a long day of medical adventures for my poor husband, it was a relief to sit on our deck under the vines and talk to our granddaughter Kelly, who turned 4 yesterday. “It’s my real birthday today,” she confided. Her party was last week so this was worth knowing: that you can celebrate twice (maybe more) but only one day is the actual day you become officially a year older.

Her birthday party included a bike parade, all the kids riding (or gliding, because her bike is a balance bike) with balloons and streamers on their handlebars. And there was also a treasure hunt. A neighbour told them that pirates had been known to come up the North Saskatchewan River to bury their treasure along Mill Creek Ravine, just a half a block from Kelly’s house. And you know how landscapes change over time, particular rivers and ravines. So there was a hunt for this treasure and sure enough, right under the porch of Kelly’s house—gold coins! And even better? There was chocolate inside.

I was not surprised to learn that pirates had been in the vicinity. It was foretold, after all, by the Arrogant Worms:

I hear in North Alberta there’s a band of buccaneers
They roam the Athabaska from Smith to Fort McKay

One of the photographs that arrived by email shows Henry on his bike in their backyard. We gave Kelly this bike for her second birthday. Now she’s moved up to a bigger size and it’s perfect for her brother.
Looking at him, I remembered one of the handful of photographs I have of my father as a child, also on a bike (well, a trike), and also near a river. The Red Deer, not the North Saskatchewan, but their body language is a shared language, across almost a century. My father looks like he would have been 3 or 4 in this photograph:
dad on bike.jpg

He’s wearing a sweater, which suggests this might be fall, his birthday, October, 1929? A boy who might also have dreamed of pirates, of treasure. I wrote about those photographs in Euclid’s Orchard:

I have a handful of photographs from the 1920s, taken on what I suspected was the land where Anna and Joseph settled and that my grandmother must have inherited after Joseph’s death during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. A funeral for Julia, the first child born to my grandmother and her second husband, my grandfather John Kishkan, in 1921 and dead of diphtheria in 1923. My father, Anthony Kishkan, known to his familiars as Tony, on a small trike in a rough yard with a dog. Another of my father in a little car with some wash tubs stacked behind him and bleak hills beyond those. I wondered if this was the land. Dry, dry, and a river nearby.

Sometimes people are too far away. You want to be part of the happy group eating cupcakes among children in a yard in Edmonton and you are instead driving down the highway to spend a day holding your husband’s hand as he is hooked to monitors (which showed that his heart is just fine so whatever else it might be, he has a strong heart). They are far away in time (your father on that bike, the dog barking at something arriving or departing behind him). And they are gone before you asked the questions you always meant to ask. But your father is also present in the body of that small boy on his bike. The half-smile, the collar turned up.

spirit level

spirit level

This is a spirit level on a cutting board of spalted maple on a maple worktable on a tile floor in the kitchen of the house we built more than 35 years ago. It sounds like a children’s rhyme, doesn’t it? A hole in the bucket, the spider that caught the fly, the small tool that measures level. This particular level was made by John’s grandfather and included in a tool box his grandfather Harold Pass gave his own son Ben to take to Canada when John’s family emigrated from England in the early 1950s. It seems to me to be a level more useful for cabinet-making than house-building and in fact Harold Pass was a cabinet-maker. The level is oak, with a brass plate fastened on with four smalls screws and if you look in the little window, you can see that our board (and our worktable and our floor and our house) is/are level.

But what about the spirit? Mine feels erratic these days. How can it not? If I listen to the news, my heart starts to race. Wildfires across the province, men without souls meeting to discuss the fate of the world we have known and loved, and even closer to home, the man who cleans up the small park where we swim most mornings expressing dismay at how young men came to the park on the weekend, took over the beach, moving the picnic tables into the lake, and drunkenly challenging anyone who tried to move them back. A beach where children swim and families bring picnics.

When we swim, we are almost always the only ones there. Yesterday a trout jumped out of the water in a shady area near a log. The other day a family of loons came quite close to shore and tried their voices, the song crazy and beautiful. This morning as I swam, I saw, at eye-level, small flies—may flies?—skittering in a regular pattern across the lake’s surface and I suddenly realized the connection between the pattern a fly-fisher creates on the water and the habits of the insects they are mimicking. How many times have I stroked through the water and never noticed the flies? I see mosquitoes and swallows dipping low to feed on them. I see wasps hovering. Occasionally a snake swimming strongly, head alert. But I’d never noticed the dance of the morning flies.

Right now John is outside, finishing the small deck and stairs off the entrance to our printshop. He’s been working on the deck for a week or so, replacing the older (and smaller) deck that was beginning to sag. I saw him pick up a big red plastic spirit level to check to make sure everything was right. These are the steps that lead to the deck that John built. The door that opens to the printshop where two presses wait to print the poem that John wrote for Edmond’s birth. (On our fridge, the poems for Kelly, Arthur, and Henry.)

I want my own spirit to settle down, to pay attention to the details of the place I care for in a general way but also specific ways. Listening to the last Swainson’s thrush songs of the year (probably) this morning. I saw one very early, darting out to eat mountain ash berries. Mostly they are flute notes in the woods to the south of the house so I was surprised to see the actual bird.

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a new bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’

That’s Seamus Heaney, making a riddle of the name for the tool that measures level but also takes our measure.  When I looked online just now to see what the liquid is that makes the bubble to indicate level, a tool site told me this: “A Spirit Level is a tool used to indicate how parallel (level) or perpendicular (plumb) a surface is relative to the earth. A spirit level gets its name from the mineral spirit solution inside the levels.” Oh the world is coded today, the last song of the thrush, the bubble hovering in the small implement on my kitchen worktable, the messages in the old rhymes we learn as children and don’t forget. I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. There’s a hole in the bucket. A little bird told me. The wise old owl saw on an oak and the more he saw, the less he spoke.