from a work-in-progress

grandma's house and fields

Listening to the young pianist playing Janáček’s “In the Mists”, I close my eyes and imagine the landscape where you were born. Foothills of the Beskids, near Janáček’s home village. He was a folklorist as well as a musician and gathered the songs and spoken tales of Moravia-Silesia. Did you sing? Did your family have its own musicians? Did you listen to the bells on the sheep and imagine them into simple tunes? Listening, I am in Moravia, I am in a village of white buildings painted with ultramarine flowers by Anežka Kašpárková, I am myself a babička, stitching blue cloth in long red stitches.

Listening to the young pianist playing “In the Mists”, I hear birdsong, the brittle canes of winter roses brushing against my house, the sounds you would not have noticed in your daily work (a house without roses), feeding chickens, washing the laundry of a family of 10, then 9, then 8, then rising again, the deaths and births echoing the seasons, the river freezing, thawing, the return of green leaves on the cottonwoods in Drumheller, on the beeches of your childhood home in Moravia-Silesia, all of it hidden in mist, morning mist coming down off the Beskydy Mountains, frozen mist in your final years in Beverly, a stone’s throw from the North Saskatchewan River.

Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I am in the fields of barley, soft grasses, poppies. A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as “a love song”.

Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I remember the sign for Frydek as we drove to your village. We drove on, drove on, through snow, past the church with the spring of eternal waters (said to have cured those suffering cholera), past the graveyard inaccessible in snow, the miracles of Mary, and a road ghosted by the footsteps of my grandmother’s family, her two sisters, the brother who no one remembers, who died in his dugout house in a squatters camp in Drumheller during another epidemic, hearing them somehow in the snow, the light wind, and now in the penultimate chord as the pianist completes his encore. Now, now, now. I am applauding and I am brushing tears from my eyes in the dark hall.

 

 

we are stardust

home

I’m at the point in my years when, looking back, I can see that my life has been an accumulation. I live in a place I love, I have a partner of 40 years who interests me and who I love dearly, I have wonderful children, and now the joy of grandchildren too. By my desk is a shopping bag containing the reading copies of my books, dense with small coloured stickies to indicate possible passages and themes for public presentations. There are 13 books, 15 if you include chapbooks, and there’s another due next year. And another in progress. Some mornings I wake with such excitement to get to my desk. (In truth, I am often up in the wee hours to take advantage of the dark and quiet, a working time that I’ve come to cherish.) There were long periods when it didn’t feel this way, I know. When my children were small, I didn’t write much. Well, to be honest, there were years of this. The man who’d been my mentor when I was in my early 20s used to ask me what I was working on—he was a lovely generous man, a good friend, but his life was organized around his work: he had a tireless wife who took care of the details, she drove him to work and she picked him up, she cooked, she managed their active social life, organized huge memorable parties and trips. He’d ask, and I’d think of the house we were extending to make more room for our expanding family, the garden I was growing to feed us well, the bread rising, the laundry that never seemed to go away, the changing needs of those I was caring for, and I’d feel sort of hopeless. About writing anyway. and I do remember days of sadness, of despair, when I felt time was passing, tides changing, and I was flotsam. It’s important for me to remember this clearly and accurately. That a life contains paradoxes. A shopping bag of books and a memory of despair.

rainy day

I’m glad I came of age as a writer in a time before social media. I’m particularly glad that the years I spent immersed in motherhood and domestic life were what I needed to carry and sort out privately, to remember, to make use of as I could. There were lonely times. A letter to a far-flung writer friend, wanting reassurance that one day I might have time again for my own work, well, it would take a week to arrive and then a response might take another week. We didn’t use the phone the way we would now. Long-distance calls were expensive! I wonder if it’s easier now for someone struggling with the difficulties of an artistic practice? I see people on various social media platforms announce their successes and I wonder about those who are wondering (who must be, because some things don’t change. Small children and their needs, households, work, etc., and the knowledge that there are years of this ahead…) if they will ever write a novel, a collection of poems, paint, sing. How it must feel to watch from the sidelines, the very public sidelines, and wonder.

When the poet who’d been my mentor asked, What are you writing?, and I had to confess, Nothing, I wish I’d known that what was actually happening was that I was accumulating an archive. Like the scraps of cloth I hoarded with the intention of using them one day in a quilt or a braided rug, the details of my life were gathering in my memory, a codex of weather, recipes, observations of how my children learned to walk, speak, how one dog died and another arrived, how our summer camping trips took us to remote rivers, groves of Ponderosa pines, small museums in dusty towns where artifacts spoke to us (or to me at least) with such poignancy. What are you writing, he’d ask. Nothing. But just wait, I wish I’d known to answer. He once confided to a friend that he predicted a very successful writing career for me. If he was alive, I wonder what he’d think now. My “career” has been (continues to be) a modest one. No agent. Books published by small literary presses (to whom I am hugely grateful, not just because they’ve taken my work but because they’ve made a place for other books like mine, small lively currents a little outside the mainstream). But it’s a life I wouldn’t have lived any other way, if I knew then what I know now. If I could reach back and tell the young woman who wondered if she would ever write again, if I could tell her anything, it would be this: Planetary scientists tell us that 100% of the elements in our bodies have their origins in stardust. We are stardust, all of us.

redux: Churchbells in Horni Lomna

7 years ago yesterday, I saw the house where my grandmother was born, grew up, was married from, and perhaps even lived in with her first husband before they left for a new life in Canada. I’m writing about her now and was reading the old post this morning.

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On February 24, Petr and Lenka took us from Ostrava to my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna in the Beskydy Mountains near the Slovak border. I have such scanty information about her life before my father was born to her and her second husband in Drumheller in 1926 but I’ve always known where she came from, and when she was born — 1881, though her naturalization papers say 1883; I will believe her birth certificate which accords with my father’s memory… When my father died in the fall of 2009, my mother gave me a small bundle of papers which included these things and after her death in 2010, I found a few little bits and pieces, including this photograph of my grandmother, Anna Klus (or Anna Klusova as she would have been here), with her first husband, Joseph Yopek.

Petr had been calling the office of the mayor of Horni Lomna for a week to find out about accessibility. Last week there was a severe snowfall — 2 metres — so we couldn’t have gone then. On Friday the mayor’s assistant said that yes, there was snow, but people were getting through, so Petr was willing to give it a try. Bless him. As we got closer to the village in its narrow valley, the snow was astonishing, high drifts on either side of the road. But then we were there:

Horni Lomna is a village of fewer than 500 people. At the village office, the mayor’s assistant explained to Petr where the house, number 26, was located. We couldn’t drive — the road was deep with snow. So we left the car and began to walk. The village was strangely familiar with its wooden houses and tall conifers, mostly spruce, and a skittering of small birds. We’d been told to take a road that veered off the main one and we were to watch for a bridge over the Lomna River (Horni means “upper”; there is also a Dolni, or “lower” Lomna, nearby). We wouldn’t be able to get right up to the house (no longer occupied), the woman had explained, because of the snow, but we would be able to see it from a neighbouring house.

I thought of my grandmother walking this road — to school, to church, to her wedding to Joseph Yopek, and perhaps even after saying goodbye to her parents in 1911 before she left with Joseph and their five children (four more would follow) for Antwerp where they boarded a boat for North America.

And then we saw her house.

Every winter it would have looked like this, tucked below its hill in the narrow valley of the Lomna River, not far from its headwaters. Those are fruit trees around it, but what kind? Plums? Apples? Her birth certificate tells me her father was a farmer so there would have been crops of some sort and this is sheep country so no doubt they would have raised sheep and maybe a pig or two. So much I don’t know, and perhaps never will. But seeing this house, in snow, gives me a sense of where she began, and in a way it’s where I began too.

Walking back, we heard churchbells announcing noon. The same churchbells, the same road, the deep snow carrying the sound as far as the heart can travel.

“The path to my mother’s house…”

lomna_1913.jpg

This is my grandmother’s village in the Czech Republic, the year she left for Canada. She was born in small house still standing on a road along the Lomna River, this river. My current work-in-progress is about her, the Czech Republic, wine, and what we know and don’t know about the past. A few weeks ago, John and I were gifted with tickets to a wonderful recital by the young Hungarian pianist Zoltán Fejèrvári, a beautiful programme of Schumann, Bartók, and Janáček. The short encore was one of the pieces from the cycle, “On an Overgrown Path”. It made me cry. I thought I was hearing something close to my family story and in a way I was. Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, not very far from my grandmother’s village. “On an Overgrown Path” is based on Moravian folk-songs and the title comes from one song with the opening line, “The path to my mother’s house is grown over with weedy clover.” It’s a bride’s song, a young woman remembering her life before marriage. I’m listening to the cycle now,  played beautifully by Radoslav Kvapil. I’m hearing my grandmother’s story, her memories of her mother’s house, the anguish she must have felt at the deaths of two children (two pieces allude to the death of Janáček’s daughter Olga), the sound of the little night owl in the Mionsi forest. I wonder if she passed this part of the river as she left Horni Lomna forever with her five children, on her way to Antwerp, then Saint John, and eventually Drumheller where her husband was waiting. When I look at her mother’s house, I imagine it in her dreams, as it is in mine.

my grandmother's house
Hers was the house at the top right of this photo.

 

 

redux: “Her grandmother lived in the woods.”

Last week I bought some finger-puppets, cunningly knit by Peruvian women, to have when my grandaughter comes to visit. (When her cousin Arthur comes — he’s younger! — I’ll find another set for a story to interest him.) We are a low-tech household and I’m sure there will be complaints when the grandchildren are older — “Oh, do we have to go to Grandma Theresa and Grandad John’s? They always want to read to us and their internet connection is so slow! Can’t we stay home and play on our I-phones?” But when I had a little Skype date with Kelly and showed her the puppets, she reached for the computer screen (in slow-motion, because of that connection!) to touch these beautiful little figures.

puppetsI spent time this morning looking at versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The one I thought I remembered best was the Brothers Grimm tale, the one in which Red and her grandmother are both consumed by the wolf but then removed from the animal’s belly by a huntsman who just happened to be passing by. He filled the cavity with stones and the wolf stumbled and died from the weight of the stones. And pulling out my copy of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, I see that is indeed the narrative arc of the tale. But my little collection of puppets includes a woodcutter — he’s on the right, with the floppy axe — and it’s the French version that features a woodcutter. This would reflect the changing nature of European forests, I suppose — some of them owned by aristocrats as large hunting preserves and some in the process of being deforested for farm crops and cattle. I remember reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment perhaps 35 years ago and being intrigued by his analysis of fairy tales as important adjuncts to shaping the emotional lives of children. Red Riding Hood was an example of a story that allowed children, specifically girls, to grapple with the unsettling fears and dangers of puberty, among other things. I think it also situates a child in the force-field of generational responsibility. A girl is asked by her mother to take sustenance to an ailing grandmother and she moves from the safety of a village to the isolated forest, from her own home with her parents to the house where her mother had grown up. Although she’s been warned to be careful on the way, how could she ever know the specific dangers along the way? Her mother mentions a few things to be alert to but her concerns are more to do with etiquette once Red arrives at her grandmother’s cottage. Does she warn about a wolf? Or a well-armed hunter? A woodcutter?

I will search out the right story to go with my puppets and if we’re lucky, Kelly might hear wolves in the night when she sleeps at her grandmother’s house in the isolated forest. And when she’s a little older, she can help chop wood herself. Just so she learns to use an axe and doesn’t wait for someone else to do it for her.

Postscript: I wrote this post three years ago. Since then, two more grandchildren have been born and many stories have been read. I love how much these children want stories. A book is a spell. Hold one up and all the wild racing around comes to a halt. This photo arrived on the weekend, a testament to the call of of stories. One family was visiting the other in a snowy city. And the youngest grandchild? I suspect he was napping.

reading...

Redux²: I wish I had all this to do again.

jp-tk

Redux²: It comes again, the anniversary of the day I met John. 40 years ago today.

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The first redux, February 2017:

I wrote the following entry on my wedding anniversary in October, 2014. But wedding anniversaries — at least in this household — seem like a foregone conclusion. The event we cherish more is the night we met. February 17, 1979. 38 years ago. How the time has flown by and returned and flown again. I wanted to post the entry again because it expresses my gratitude for the life I have. It’s not without its wrinkles but it’s worth living, every minute of it. Tonight we will have a special dinner, but early (and not duck), because we’re going out to dance at the Cooper’s Green Hall in Halfmoon Bay where the Tube Radios will be filling the hall with folk music. Well, maybe we won’t do much dancing but if you hear toe-tapping and humming, that’ll be us. Still married. Still in place.

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On this day, thirty-five years ago, I married John Pass in a small ceremony which we wrote ourselves and which was officiated by a Unitarian minister at the Latch in Sidney. I wore a gauzy hippy dress and a wreath of yellow roses in my hair and John wore very wide corduroy trousers and a Harris tweed jacket. Our families, a motley group, attended the wedding itself and a luncheon afterwards; then friends joined us for champagne in one of the Latch’s beautiful reception rooms. Our parents hadn’t met before the wedding and John’s father, estranged from both John and his mother for at least ten years, charmed us all by telling jokes during the lunch, mostly ethnic jokes. I remember my father saying, after each of them, “Ben, I’m Ukrainian.” “Ben, I”m Polish!”. And so on.

We’d met eight months before. John was participating in one of the readings Warren Tallman organized as benefits for bill bissett when a couple of MPs felt that his work — as a writer and a publisher — shouldn’t receive government support. This one was at Open Space in Victoria and a mutual friend, Doug Beardsley, wondered if I’d like to join him and John for dinner before the reading. John and I didn’t like each other at first but during the reading, I had the sense that he was reading his poems for me, and at the end of the evening, he walked me from Doug’s place on Burdett to my flat on Fort Street, past the sleeping Art Gallery of Victoria, where he kissed me and told me I made him feel 16. So that was the beginning.

We were both entangled in relationships. His was in North Vancouver. Mine was in Ireland. I was in Victoria that winter, having spent time in the west of Ireland, and I was planning to return. I did go back, for three months, in part to finish Inishbream, the novella I’d begun to write. After three months, John joined me in Dublin and I took him back to the little caravan in Aughris for a week, the one the cows rubbed themselves against at night so that it rocked back and forth on its concrete blocks. Its saving grace was its position on the very edge of the Atlantic.

At the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we wanted to find a place that was our own. Not Victoria, not North Vancouver. Maybe one of the Gulf Islands? By then, property on the more accessible ones was expensive. What about the Sechelt Peninsula, wondered John. I’d never been but we came up and camped on Ruby Lake. And we bought eight and a half acres near the lake late that first winter. We’d never built anything in our lives other than book-shelves (and with the guidance of a friend, I built a filing cabinet out of half-inch plywood…). But I told John I was sure we had vestigial knowledge in our hands and when the skills were needed, we’d discover we had them. Ha.

We did build a house, this house —

our house.jpg

  — and we had three children in fairly quick succession, these children — 

on-white-pine-island

— who have all grown up and gone out into the world. I can’t imagine another life. Or wait, maybe I can. There were things I’d dreamed of doing. But I wouldn’t trade any of what I have for those. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 35 years. We still find each other interesting. He’s tolerant. I’m, well, stubborn. This summer we were lying in our bed listening to Swainson’s thrushes in the woods just beyond our bedroom and John said, I wish I had all this to do again. We probably don’t have another thirty-five years — I’m 59 and John is nearly 67 — but oh, ten? Twenty?

Tonight we’ll have our favourite dinner — duck breasts with cherries soaked in port. Maybe roasted pears for dessert. And a Desert Hills wine — not sure which one — in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my fiftieth birthday, still remarkably intact.

  not broken.jpg

twirling

dad on bike.jpg

My father, on his small tricycle, c. 1929, his dog watching the road. I think of him often, particularly when I see photographs of my grandchildren. How certain gestures, features, remain over time, in the intricate mathematics of inheritance.

I consider the ghost of a child’s hand in an ultrasound image, another of a baby’s spine,my father on a tricycle,in a little metal car, grey, grey, the propped coffin on a bench in 1923, on the stair by a house I am uncertain is the one my father spent his
childhood in or an earlier one that burned. Is it the house built by Joseph Yopek or a later house?

—from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2019

This morning, 3 of my grandchildren in a cafe in Ottawa (the 4th still too small to sit on a stool unassisted). They remind me of their own fathers (my sons) and they remind me of my brothers as children, twirling on stools in cafes as we drove across Canada to Halifax, and back. Twirling and twirling until, dizzy with movement, they’d fall or be forcibly removed from the stool, and scolded.

at Bobby's Table