“And all the lives we ever lived”

“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves.” — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Yesterday I surprised myself and finished the novella I’ve been working on. I knew I was somewhere near the conclusion but as I didn’t know what would ultimately happen, I didn’t see the end coming until I was actually there.
(When I say I “finished”, what I mean is that I completed a first draft. The next step is to print it out because I can never do a substantial edit before I see what the work looks like as a physical text. Some people can scroll through pages on a screen and understand where they are in the work as a whole and how each chapter (or section, in my case) relates to the others. But I can’t. I like to sit with an actual draft and a pen and scribble on paper as I read.)
I’ve noted before that this is probably a novella that will not be published. It’s a strange sort of meta thing. The narrator is writing a thesis on the work of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson and she frequently refers to their writing. She is notating a map with places and moments in their fiction and the reader imagines a map with actual passages from various books. A scholar writing a thesis wouldn’t have to worry (I don’t think) about securing permission to use the quoted material because it’s considered fair use for critical purposes. But as this is a work of fiction, the situation is a bit more complicated. And potentially prohibitively expensive. That’s what I mean by “meta”. Or maybe I don’t. This novella is a strange sort of hybrid. And I loved every minute of its creation.

Last week I met with the Special Collections librarian and archivist at the University of Victoria about papers (mine, and John’s) and they showed me one of the Margaret Peterson works held by the Legacy Gallery at UVic. It’s a huge tempera on panel and when I saw it, I thought two things. One is that Margaret Peterson belongs in this novella and so now she’s there. (There’s that meta idea again: in my own life, I met her and her husband Howard O’Hagan once. The narrator of the novella is, in a way, the person I would have been if I’d pursued a degree in Canadian Literature instead of becoming a writer.) The other is that the painting would make a perfect cover image.

At this point in my life, I am grateful to be able to sit at my desk and construct a work in which worlds are superimposed on one another, the real and the imagined. Grateful to spend time in the grace and beauty of language and rivers, bluebunch wheatgrass and Ponderosa pines. Where coyotes appear out of folds in the hills and history glosses the landscape like a weathered homestead where someone still makes a daily fire and tends to the animals.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

an autumn meditation, after Du Fu

sitting duck

It’s autumn again, the year turning as the planet turns, as the ocean at Long Beach last week eased into shore and then retreated, the silver of it in morning light as lovely as anything I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been moving plants into the sun-room for winter. I always think this will take, oh, half an hour but of course the plants need to be pruned back, tidied, dead leaves shaken into a bucket. Some of them are the parents or offspring of things I’ve tended for more than 30 years. The jade plants, the scented geraniums, some succulents brought for me as Mother’s Day gifts at the local swap meet, a Meyer lemon I bought on a whim in 1987 and often have enough fruit from for marmalade. 3 huge epiphyllum cacti that bloom year round and draw the hummingbirds in summer when we hang them from the overhead beams of our deck pergola to shelter among the grape leaves and wisteria.

I came in to read Du Fu, his Autumn Meditations. Always the precise observation and always the sadness for friends gone, the summer only a memory, the sound of geese flying south.

Jade frost bites the maple trees
and Wu Mountain and Wu Gorge breathe out dark fear

as river waves rise up to the sky
and dark wind-clouds touch ground by a frontier fortress.

The chrysanthemums have twice bloomed tears of other days,
When I moor my lonely boat my heart longs for my old garden.

The need for winter clothes hurries scissors and bamboo rulers.
White Emperor City looms over the rushed sound of clothes beaten at dusk.

Yesterday I put my summer clothes away, lavender tucked into pockets. When John got up to make the fire and coffee, I heard him wonder aloud at the light over the patio, then his chuckle as he realized it was the wisteria leaves turned gold. It happened, as these things happen, as life happens, almost overnight. And every year we are startled by the unexpectedness of the usual. This morning, I thought, oh, I must ask my mother about something, and then realized, yikes, she’s dead. Has been for 8 years next month. But wasn’t only a year or two ago my parents joined us at Long Beach and sat on logs looking out to sea while our children turned cartwheels in the sand? One of the succulents I brought in was a Christmas cactus grown from a tiny slip from John’s mother. This year it’s loaded with buds.


As Du Fu noted, “Immortal companions share a boat, move on in the evening.” The plants come in and I find room for them under windows from a house built before the First World War, many of the panes still with their original wavery glass. That’s why my sight was blurry when I came downstairs. I’m sure of it.

“Something that happened a century ago, west of the 4th Meridian.”

julia's funeral

From Euclid’s Orchard, published last fall by Mother Tongue Publishing:

And did my grandmother ever tell us of her first husband and the shack he built for her on the banks of the Red Deer River, how he dug a garden in preparation, how he went under the earth for coal, some cold potatoes wrapped in clean cloth, or did this come from an aunt, looking back under poplars in a yard, thinking of the distance a family travels, by water, by rail. As far away as the Carpathian Mountains, so far that some of them die on the way to lives of their own? Two babies buried in the Drumheller cemetery, where we saw showy milkweed, heard the click of beetle wings, the small strophe of local music almost too faint to hear. And a husband, a brother, either sleeping in the mass flu grave or else somewhere forgotten,their own journey abandoned too soon.No,I don’t believe she told me.All of this I gleaned from a sentence here or there, a fragment of song, a remembered prayer on a string of beads. Something that happened a century ago, west of the 4th Meridian.

Migratory, like monarchs, we find our own urgent way to a place where the sun and earth greet us, give us rest. We find our place among wild plants on a roadside, we hear beetles and the lazy drone of bees. If we sit on the grass and let the dry wind ruffle our hair, will the voices come to us again?

another year accumulates


We are sitting in front of the big window looking out at the ocean. There’s a fire and cups of dark coffee. A good day to walk the long beaches and celebrate another year of marriage. Last year I wrote this: https://theresakishkan.com/2017/10/20/how-in-age-our-own-bodies-remember-their-youth/

A year of adventures, a new grandchild, some travel, some misadventures, but yes, I’d do it all again. In a heartbeat.



hold fast

hold fast

A holdfast is a root-like structure that anchors aquatic sessile organisms, such as seaweed, other sessile algae, stalked crinoids, benthic cnidarians, and sponges, to the substrate. (from Wikipedia)

Walking on the long beaches this morning—Cox Bay, Florencia Bay—I forgot for a time the dark world all around me. The wars, the children (still) in cages, the dams and pipelines, the people without homes tucked into dry corners in every city, the raftloads on precarious waters…I don’t know what to do about those things. I’d like to say I do my best—letters to people who might have some influence, petitions, money to organizations trying to ensure better standards for those who have no voice. I write my quiet books commemorating place and history. And it isn’t enough. I know that.

But this morning, leaning over to look at bunches of kelp washed in with their anchors still attached, I thought there was a small lesson in that. The tight grip of the kelp on the stones, the beauty of the relationship. Wikipedia has this to say about the relationship (and I’m sorry to cite Wiki in this case but I’m away from home and don’t have my natural history books at hand):

The holdfasts of organisms that live on smooth surfaces (such as the surface of a boulder) have flattened bases which adhere to the surface. The organism derives no nutrition from this intimate contact with the substrate, as the process of liberating nutrients from the substrate requires enzymatically eroding the substrate away, thereby increasing the risk of organism falling off the substrate.

And yet they hold fast. They are stranded on the beach in perfect union, the root-like structures of the kelp embracing the boulders. All around people walk, crows strut, the surfers race down to catch the perfect wave. There are times and places when I am reminded to hold fast myself, to stay alive in the imperfect world. To remember the words of Lorine Niedecker:

Do not save love
for things
Throw things
to the flood

by the flood
Leave the new unbought—
all one in the end—

(I can’t get this to retain the format. A few of the lines are indented.)

hold fast2

Happy Hour

happy hour

It’s Happy Hour on the edge of the Pacific—for us, drinking wine and eating olives and bits of this and that, and for the crows on the sand, pecking in the sand for…well, what? Worms? Sand fleas? The stranded jelly with its viscera on display had tiny tracks leading to it, like the most delicate stitching, but it was intact, so no feast for whatever bird investigating its potential.

Surfers go back and forth into the waves. Waves return and return. On the way here, just at the junction of the highway where you turn left to Ucluelet and right to Tofino, I was listening to Van Morrison sing “Ancient Highways” and it was exactly the song to take me—us—to where we will stay for 3 nights.

Traveling like a stranger in the night, all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down

Praying in this case being a kind of deep attention, not to a god (or maybe many) but to a place, to a history, a girl on the beach with shells strung to her ankles and such sorrow in her heart, because she came here after mistakes, disappointments, failures. I sip my wine and watch my daughter walk down the beach and I am filled with memories. The fire is warm, the tide is coming in, I can see the sun setting so beautifully that it’s hard to believe it does this daily.

I found two halves of sand dollars, which means I am rich. I am. I am the woman sitting in the chair looking out at this and I want nothing else.

happy hour2


postcard from Ogden Point


I’ve just returned from walking to the end of the breakwater and back. It has guardrails all along its length—I think the sign said it’s 765 meters—and I thought how I used to walk it in my adolescence, its surface slippery with rain, and later, with boyfriends on dark Friday evenings, and how it seemed that one good wave could wash me away.

This morning? No such danger. Soft air, soft water, a heron fishing from the kelp beds, and only the faintest memory of cold nights arm-in-arm with boys whose names I’ve forgotten.

“There’s no sense in trying to race the night.”


I’m reading Flights, the strange and beautiful cabinet of wonders by Olga Tokarczuk, and on every page, in every cabinet, there’s something so deeply resonant. In fact, the book is put together the way I dream of putting a book together—a series of anecdotes, cameos, meditations, travel guides, observations, entrances into deeply mysterious rooms where, if you’re lucky, you might find yourself.

Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly eat, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once? Or to a different law that hasn’t been demonstrated and that we haven’t even thought of yet that says that you can doubly not exist in the same place?

In 2010, we took an overnight train from Prague to Amsterdam. It was the beginning of a journey in a way, though it was leading to the conclusion of a month of travel that included Amsterdam, Vienna, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The previous year, a month of travel had taken us by train from Paris to Venice, and back. The last train of that particular trip had been so awful I said I’d never step on another train. (I have a tendency for drama at times.) John had booked a sleeping compartment and assumed we would be private. But no. A group of young men going to Paris for a religious event shared our couchette. They were pleasant enough, if sick. Sneezing, coughing, sweating. And they prayed, fervently, with rosaries. The nearest toilets had flooded. There was no paper. And then the train broke down somewhere in central France and no one could tell us when or how it would be repaired. There was no heat and the train windows quickly steamed up, then glazed over with ice. It was late-November.

But in Prague on that later trip, I was the one who’d been sick, and I was treating myself as gently as I could. When John made the train bookings months earlier from Canada, we weren’t to know that I’d feel so frail. It was the last day of my antibiotics when we boarded the train and were led down the corridor to our little chamber. The steward arranged our cases on a special rack and then left, returning a few minutes later with glasses of champagne. He kept peeking in to make sure we were comfortable. And oh yes, we were. We sat on the long seat and watched the lights of Prague as the train raced into the night. The steward made up our beds with snowy sheets and wool blankets and lovely pillows and then we took turns having hot showers in the bathroom with its ingenious fittings. The towels were thick and soft. I’d been sick and not sleeping well but that night I had a deep sleep, only waking as the train stopped at stations all over Germany. I’d hear the sound of the wheels slowing and stopping and I’d lift the little blind at the foot of my bed (I had the bottom bunk) and see KÖLN or BERLIN and then sink back into sleep. In the morning we were in the Netherlands, passing rivers and children walking to school. The steward quickly returned our beds to the seat arrangement and brought us trays of dark coffee, croissants, slices of cheese and ham, and little bunches of grapes. And then we were in Amsterdam, with our friends there, and then flying home, via Toronto and Ottawa (to visit our sons). A couple of weeks after we returned, my mother died and I was another person, but one who carried the calm peace of that ride across Europe intact.

This book knows about trains, about their appeal, and why not, because the continent is latticed with rail tracks. They’ve brought people together, apart, have taken whole communities to unspeakable places and horrors, have carried families to new lives (my own grandmother travelled from Moravia to Antwerp in 1913 with five small children and all her worldly belongings to start a new life in Canada), and they continue, though so many people are now devoted to the quick cheap flights that have proliferated in recent years. I’ve taken those too and know the unsettling dissonance of leaving a cold country and arriving in a warm one within an hour or two, of walking off the plane in a parka to the scent of oranges.

Last night, the final paragraph I read before putting aside Flights ended like this:

The train stops in fields and stands in their nocturnal fogs, a quiet hotel on wheels. There’s no sense in trying to race the night.

When I woke this morning, not knowing for a moment where I was (we’re on the Island, in a motel overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca), I remembered that train journey from Prague to Amsterdam, the crisp white sheets enfolding my body, and the rhythmic music of the wheels crossing Europe in the night. A wonder that a book that can do this, and more.



We caught the early ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay so we could poke around in Powell River, then continue on for lunch to the Laughing Oyster at Okeover Inlet. Forrest, Manon, and their children leave tomorrow so we all wanted to do something we’ve done in the past, and loved; a chance to immerse ourselves in the old coast, a place of weathered wood and low storefronts, winding roads leading past stump farms, and everywhere the smell of the sea.

It was a lovely day, the inlets—Jervis and Okeover—soft with mist. Last night, in my bed, I kept remembering a certain turn of the road, the sound of kingfishers, and as I put my book aside, I felt somehow returned to myself, the way a change can do that, or a perfect book, or a combination of both. The book, in this instance, was Deep Hollow Creek, Sheila Watson’s first novella, though it was published long after her iconic The Double Hook. The latter is one of the texts at the heart of my novella-in-progress, which I’ve almost finished writing. (The first draft, at least.) Along with Ethel Wilson’s fine Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval, it is such an excellent example of how women often write out of a deep engagement with landscape. Their maps are not the maps we usually think of when we explore literary cartography and my book tries to fill in these gaps, enter the contours of their language and attention. In a week or two I will have a draft and then I will know if I’ve done what I’d hoped to do. Sometimes I was lost in the pages of what I was writing, sometimes distracted from them, fearful of them. In the meantime, last night, I read these lines:

For the time being she had lost her bearings, she felt, and been engulfed in the vast rolling waves of the folding and unfolding earth.

And I knew again that Deep Hollow Creek is both a map and a guide, a book that opens a place in the body and says, This is also you, this is also what you know. The unfolding earth, the calm water seen out the window at Okeover Inlet, the islands of Jervis Inlet moving in and out of the mist.

stories in cloth


On Thanksgiving we remember our place on earth. Pies of apples gathered before the bears could eat them, cabbages salvaged from the deer, garlic dug in July and dried in the woodshed, the family we have helped to create and know will continue long after us, in one form or another. On the table, a pot of Japanese anemone and peony leaves, the long drought giving them the most beautiful claret colour. In the woodstove, split alder and fir from an afternoon’s labour where the orchard used to grow.

It was Arthur’s birthday yesterday and I made him a quilt over late summer, stitching a loose spiral of salmon in red sashiko thread on a single piece of deep blue cotton. The border is saffron yellow, a freehand watery line encircling the fish in their dark water. At the top of the quilt, I tried to figure out how to represent 3 key constellations in our sky on the night Arthur was born 3 years ago: Cygnus, Cassiopeia, and Orion. I used a star chart (the old-fashioned kind though I suspect I could have looked it up on Google) and I used shell buttons for both the stars and the salmon eyes. My thinking was that fish use celestial navigation in part to find their way to their natal streams, as well as olfactory and magnetic forces. And there are subtle forces that keep children returning home too, the stream of our lives enriched by their arrivals.

We’ve always loved stories in this house, every kind of story. Here’s Forrest reading a bedtime story to Edmond, who is 3 months old.

bedtime story

That quilt they’re on has a story too. For a few years, when I first began to make quilts, I used stars—Ohio Stars, Variable Stars, and others I’ve now forgotten. One year I thought, Oh, try something else. So I carefully cut out pieces to make Chimney Sweep blocks. But sewing them together, I discovered that without really thinking about it, I was making stars. And after all these years, I’m still doing that.