redux: a cup of kindness

From New Year’s Eve, 2015, when it seems we didn’t celebrate with the friends we usually spend the evening with. Tonight we will!

___________________________

It’s just after three and the sun is already sliding down beyond the trees. It’s lovely, though — like old faded gold. And the hard frost has rimed every surface with silver. Our house is quiet after 12 days of festivity, beginning with John’s birthday on the 19th, Cristen’s on the 21st, and Sahand’s on the 24th, followed by Christmas itself. I have to confess that not all of us were celebrating together for the whole time as we were gifted with a Norovirus (I’m looking at you, Kelly!) and it made its merry way through the household, some of us suffering more than others but no one was immune. I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity to make meals for my loved ones, though, even knowing what I know now about sleeplessness, nausea, and aches in every joint and muscle. And yes, wine was consumed (many bottles of it); so was shortbread, white chocolate fruit cake, gingerbread, nuts, trifle, Turkish delight, any number of kinds of chocolates, and little glasses of Carolan’s Irish Cream. A turkey. A duck. Lamb made into Khoresh Gheymeh and served with Zeytoon Parvardeh (a wonderful green olive, walnut, and pomegranate salad). Flourless chocolate torte as a group birthday cake. No one went hungry.

We are spending New Years Eve alone. The two of us. We don’t feel strong enough to go out into the world and make merry. The others left, one car after another loaded down with presents, luggage, a baby clutching her dolly, and two cats in their carriers. We’re promised a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis tonight, if we stay awake long enough, and there’s still enough food for the Russian army (though maybe we don’t want to feed them at this point in human history), and one last bottle of Prosecco if we feel like toasting the turn of the year.

New Years Eve always makes me wistful. How did a year pass without me noticing, without me keeping up with the things I’d hoped to accomplish. How did the years accumulate so that we are now anticipating 2016 — oh, and I’ve only just become accustomed to beginning writing a date with 20– instead of 19–. I thought I’d have the whole house clean in readiness for the new year. My mother was raised in a Scots Presbyterian house and believed that it was bad luck to take the old year’s clutter and dust into the new. I began the day with good intentions, after waving goodbye to those driving away this morning. I disinfected the bathrooms and the two rooms where most of the sickness took place, washing three loads of bed-linens, hanging much of it out on the clothes line to freeze any residual bugs, and took out several bags of trash. But the rest of the house? Hmmm. My study is what my Yorkshire mother-in-law would have called a “tip”. Baskets of wrapping papers and bags of ribbons (all to save for next year, of course!), stacks of research materials, piles of books, some packages of seeds I meant to do something with (I can’t remember what), oh, and family photographs I’ve been meaning to scan, though looking at them is like a trick of light, whoosh, everything happening at once, time and the years burning as brightly as the fir in our woodstove, the heat lasting almost a whole night. The heat, the images so sweetly warm, the faces as beautiful as the sun is this very minute, soft and golden, filtering through the branches of the trees like memory.

So I wish you all a very happy New Year, filled with good health and sweetness, and I hope you get to hear someone sing that most beautiful of Robert Burns’s poems, set to music:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

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

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

As for me, I’ll be listening while I look at old photographs, remembering not two but three young children running in the grass at Nicola Lake summer after summer, never imagining them grown. And now gone.

at Nicola Lakebrendan at Nicola Lake

 

redux: the physics of candles

From December, 2016…

Yesterday John wondered aloud where candles go as they burn. Some of the wax drips down, of course, but some candles burn so beautifully clean that you turn and they’re gone, dematerialized into thin air.

We burn a lot of candles. In winter they are a way of keeping the light present and close. We found a silver candelabra in a junk shop in Faulkland years ago, its silver hidden under half an inch of blue wax. I could tell it would lovely once it was cleaned and polished so we bought it for 20 bucks. On that particular road trip, we’d been listening to Ian Tyson and I kept pressing Replay when “The Road to Las Cruces” came on: “Does the wind still blow/Out of New Mexico?/ Does the silver candelabra still shine?” So it was fitting to find what we call the Ian Tyson candelabra and when the candles burn in its shapely holders, I think of Faulkland, and New Mexico, and roads leading to mythical places. When we went to New Mexico a few years ago, we didn’t drive as far as Las Cruces but we did recognize Las Vegas from the song, and the cow boss of the big ranch nearby.

candles.jpg

But where does the wax go? I was awake early wondering. It must be the same place firewood goes when it burns, only part of the log reduced to ash. It goes to heat and smoke, to water, to carbon dioxide. Are you awake, I asked John. Just, he said in a sleepy voice. It was 6:18 and we spent half an hour discussing the physics of candles and firewood.

And time. Where it does. Because yesterday we were caring for our grandson while his parents and his auntie Angie went down to Sechelt for sushi and Arthur spent an hour outside with his granddad, doing stuff. Throwing stones into the little pond where the yellow irises bloom so beautifully in summer. Exchanging sticks. Picking up boughs brought down by wind and taking them to the burning pile. And as I looked out the kitchen window, I thought I saw Arthur’s dad Forrest following his dad as he did those same things 34 years ago. When I told John this, he said he’d had the same sense of time. That he was outside with his son, showing him the woods, the birds, the long curve of the driveway down and out into the world.

In our bed before the rest of the household woke, I confessed that I feel I’m in a place between worlds these days. Part of it is due to the presence of part of my family, the way they occupy the rooms in the back of the house as others once occupied them, their younger selves, their brother who is in Edmonton with his own young family. When I wake in the night with the feeling that the house is full again, I have to stop to parse what that means. Who, where, when. Part of it is because I’ve been writing about my parents and my father’s family, new immigrants to Alberta in 1913, and the difficult lives they led there. They’re all mine and I hover between them, the different worlds, the time passing and accumulating, so that I don’t recognize where I am in that continuum. Part of it is because I’ve been anticipating some medical tests after the holiday and maybe I’m closer to those who’ve already passed from this world than I’m ready to admit. But I feel strangely comfortable with that thought.

When I read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, I noted this:  “A stray fact: insects are not drawn to candle flames, they are drawn to the light on the far side of the flame, they go into the flame and sizzle to nothingness because they’re so eager to get to the light on the other side.” Is this what candles know, as they burn and transform to water and heat? Is this what we know as we gaze at them, wondering?

 

freehand

freehand

from a work-in-progress:

When I began to make quilts, in 1987, I wanted to explore blue. A soft patchwork of pale blue prints worked into Ohio stars paired with unbleached cotton; a composition of log-cabin blocks, blue strips and yellow, a tiny square of red in the middle for the fire; red tulips in a haze of forget-me-nots. I began to think of ways to print the surfaces myself, with wax and clamps and strands of tough string. I batiked leaping salmon and then drew thread through the cloth in the mokume shibori technique, pulling it tight and knotting it. The waxed and tied bundles were immersed in a deep blue Procion dye. Before taking them out and rinsing them, I cracked the wax a little to allow dye to penetrate the relief fish. Once I’d removed all the wax, using my mother’s old iron and many pages of newspaper, I liked the results, though the lines of mokume weren’t as wavery as I’d hoped they would be. I had some fabric paint and used a fine brush to detail the salmon with lines of red along the tail and fins. I loved what Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada wrote in Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now:

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

You do this for the process, what you learn along the way. That waxed dental floss sewn along lines with a basting stitch can be pulled tight for water, that waxing a fish into plain cotton and dipping the cotton in blue gives you a memory of watching coho spawn in the creek near your house, a cycle that has been going on since the last ice age at least. That others have dipped cloth into blue dye and worn the pigment on their hands for weeks afterwards.

winter dreaming at the end of the old year

crossing the bridge

Last night I dreamed so vividly of a place my family lived in the 1950s, at the foot of Poignant Mountain, and a drive across the Fraser River to Mission City. I dreamed and woke and couldn’t believe how the years had passed.

All the mystery of waiting at the river for the bridge to come down, the dark water, the glowing of the beehive burners, the anticipation of an egg salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. A crossing I loved. From Matsqui to Mission, from our side of the river to the other. And returning, driving home over the bridge again, from the shadow of the mountains to the open prairie, along Riverside Road, past Miss Kemprud’s where we went for ice-cream during Sunday drives, past the school my younger brother attended, past the hall where, at the age of five, I’d been in a fashion show—I modelled a tartan skirt and short-sleeved sweater from Eaton’s, which I hated and which my mother bought for me afterwards—along Harris Road, then Glenmore, house lights golden in the black fields, turning right on Townshipline Road until we reached our own driveway, the quiet barn with its sleeping cows, and the sound of frogs loud in the slough. I’ve turned a dream into a memory. But in fact both are the same.

Across dark water, I went from childhood to adolescence. The house at the end of the row by the radio base was not the house we returned to from Mission City in the dream that was also a memory. It was a white house on a farm on a long road, but that road led back to the foot of Poignant Mountain, forgotten and then found, lard pails stained by blueberries and abandoned on the verge, a small girl huddled in the cool bunker where the milk waited to be collected and where I wait now with her for the end of the world.

— from “Poignant Mountain”, Euclid’s Orchard, published by Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

“who found you in the green forest?”

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?

bare boughs

Our tree has just been set into the corner by the south window. John is stringing lights and just before he began, I wanted to say, Let’s leave it bare this year, just this one year. We chose a tree growing in a thicket of whippy alders, under the big Cheekeye-Dunsmuir power lines above the Malaspina substation, and before the trees get very big, they are hacked to the ground to keep the lines clear. So a good place to cut a Christmas tree because at least we will cherish it for the week it’s in our house, and remember it. “Who found you in the green forest?” It was us, knowing within five minutes that this was the tree. The boxes of ornaments are on the floor by the sideboard. The Wayne Ngan bowl will be filled with nuts and chocolates.

But to leave the tree bare one year would also be a good thing. To keep the green boughs clear, to keep the lyrical shape of it intact, unfettered by lights or wooden horses or silvery bells. Not this year. The lights, as I mentioned, are being strung in and through the lovely branches.

look                    the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine

For all of you who are looking at your own tree or remembering the trees of Christmases past or lighting candles against the darkness or singing those old true carols, I wish you the happiest of days and a beautiful year to follow.

redux: boughs

From December 23, 2014.

We did cut our tree this morning, again a tall Douglas fir, but it won’t come inside until December 24. For now it rests in the woodshed, its trunk in a small bucket of water.

*****************************

Our tree has just come into the house. Cut this morning, a nine-foot Douglas fir, it has all the odour of the winter forest, and its boughs are so green and lush that I’m almost tempted to say, “Let’s leave it naked this year.” A paradox — to dress an evergreen in baubles and stars? Little ceramic birds? To remind it of the world it’s been taken from, to give us green through the darkest days? No living bird will settle on these boughs again. No snow will accumulate on the needles, no cones will form. Tomorrow we’ll pull out the boxes of decorations and place them on every branch, against the trunk, the one special star on the top (which had to be trimmed to fit into our house). For now, I want to stand on the edge of the room and look at its splendid undressed beauty.

Trees bring in the scent of the outdoors and they remind us too of moments when we sat by them, cut them for firewood, burned them gratefully all winter for their heat, brushed against them and ran our fingers along their various barks, reminded of them later as we raised resiny hands to our faces.

Remember “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” by Gary Snyder? (From Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems):

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
I don’t have cones from this tree but here’s a pair of elegant long cones I picked up under a small stand of Pinus monticola at the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa last month while walking there with Forrest and Manon. They still smell alive. They can stand in for absence, tokens of affection, what we keep to remember the miles between us this time of year.
P1110002

redux: bringing home the tree

From last year, as we plan this year’s tree cutting…

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