This is one of the first things we planted when we built the west-facing deck: a montana clematis. In my memory (not always reliable), it was blooming on Forrest’s 3rd birthday; friends came up for the day from Vancouver and we celebrated in spring sunlight on the new deck. It’s very rampant and has covered an entire section of railing and climbed up to join a grapevine and a wisteria on the trellis over the table we use all summer.
Last September, after we’d picked the grapes, I heard a commotion on the deck and looked out to see a young black bear climbing into these vines. When I shouted at it, the bear dropped down to the herb trolley below and ran off, but only momentarily. All month it hung around, eating crabapples, ambling around the place like a family dog. (Except it wasn’t.)
When I looked at the clematis just now, I remembered so much. That birthday party, with chocolate cake and the helium balloons our friends brought for the boys, one of which escaped on the ferry across Jervis Inlet a day or two later and probably still circles the earth. (The balloon, not the boy.) The Pacific willow that grew in front of the deck and how the clematis sent tendrils into it, embracing it and eventually smothering it to death. When it fell, the clematis fell too and died but luckily came back from the roots. And when we moved the willow off the bank the fall after it died? We saw that there were old bird nests tucked into the dense shelter created by its branches and the thicket of clematis vine. We couldn’t see them while the tree was living.
When the deck was rebuilt a few years ago, John realized he could use the existing beams and joists but he could extend the surface by cantilevering. The vines were all carefully untangled from their places and laid back on tripods to wait for construction to finish and then they were ceremoniously replaced. The clematis sulked but eventually accepted its new supports.
I remembered the rose we bought at the same time as the clematis, now long gone. And so many dinners on the deck, so many years of parties and conversations (one just last night!) and weeks of watering in the heat of summer. So many raccoons in fall, a bear, generations of hummingbirds, western tanagers, Steller’s jays, warblers.
When I planted the clematis, I wasn’t thinking about the future. The boards of the deck were raw and new. I had two sons, one turning 3 and one a year old. The days were filled with caring for them and helping John with building projects. We don’t plant for the immediate moment but for the future, whether that might be two months or twenty years away. Or thirty-five. While I was taking the photographs of the clematis, I stubbed my toe on something and I looked down to see the Garry oak I am growing from an acorn gathered at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria 5 or 6 years ago. It took nearly a year for the acorn to germinate and each year it’s put on a single set of new leaves. I’ve repotted it once and next year I’ll look for a likely place to put it in the ground.
This little tree is a sort of double mnemonic. When I look at it, I remember walking the trail around the bog with my husband and daughter, something we often do when we visit Victoria. But I also remember the area before it was a park managed by the Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society, when it was farmland still, before the Broadmead subdivision, before the shopping centre and the churches.
In the late 1960s, I used to saddle my horse early on weekend mornings and ride him across the Pat Bay Highway to a gate leading up onto the old Rithet’s farmland. I was in my early teens, a lonely girl in search of lonely places. Someone had told me that it was fine to ride there, but that the gate had to be kept closed, as there were cattle grazing in the area. I don’t really remember the cattle, but I occasionally saw deer in the tall grass. There were many oaks growing on the slopes. In the spring, there were expanses of blue camas, yellow buttercups, and odd speckled flowers that I now know were chocolate lilies.
I loved the open beauty of those meadows, where pheasants roamed and flew up, sharp-winged as we approached. The meadows smelled intensely dry, fragrant as hay, though not dusty. I’d let my horse canter up the long slopes and loved the way sunlight filtered through the trees.
–from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (2011)
So we plant for the future and for the past and for the moment that contains both of these. I will probably never see this tiny oak grow into the fullness of time but it’s not why I planted it. Rubbing one of its new leaves between my fingers, I am riding through that gate into Broadmead meadows, my black horse’s neck already damp with sweat.
So now I have tokens, left in the event she should return to claim me, in all my imperfections—a child who burned recipes, who resisted sitting on her bed to share details of her life, a life I thought she’d disapprove of, but maybe I would have been surprised.Was I the fairest object of her love all those years when I felt myself homely, lonely, my face too dark, my legs too thick? Did her longing eyes seek me? Was my own birth wondrous to her. I doubt it. She was alone with two young sons, my father at sea, as he would be for so much of my childhood. I’ve searched for her mother, who never returned, who never claimed her in word or deed, but maybe I should have concentrated more on her. Her true heart, her own plain virtue.
At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat,a memory of Mrs. Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea, with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.
–from “Tokens”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.
Note: This post from May 2015 referred to the writing of an essay “Euclid’s Orchard” — it came the title essay for Euclid’s Orchard, published in 2017. But here I am in May 2019 working on another collection of essays, pondering the same either/ors. And agreeing with Rebecca Solnit in so many ways, particularly this: “Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”
A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.
But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.
Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.
I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labelled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.
I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).
Lately I have been thinking about bridges and gates. Both of them are practical things and both of them are means of transporting us from one thing to another. From one side of a river to another, from one realm to another; both are openings in a way, if we allow them to be. Well, a gate or a door is obviously this but a bridge also has the ability to open us to a landscape, a far shore, without the potential danger of crossing a river by swimming or on horseback or by small boat (“The water is wide, I cannot swim o’er…“). My mother used to say, Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, and I’d ponder this in a way I never pondered the verses we had to memorize in Sunday school.
Many years ago, John and I happened upon a Paul Feiler exhibit at the Tate St. Ives. I was unfamiliar with his work but loved it, particularly the Janicon paintings. Feiler had trouble with his sight at the point in his life when he painted these serene works named for the god Janus who looked forward and backwards at once. John loved them too and wrote a poem exploring his reaction. The poem walks us through rooms filled with the shields and portals of the Janicon paintings. And then it tries to grapple with what they mean.
Is there something, I scribbled down
parallel to do in language?
The catalogue quotes Whitman: Darest though now
Oh soul/Walk out with me toward the unknown region…
The catalogue quotes Pound: In the gloom the gold
Gathers the light about it. I sit down
with my mother months later in her garden pergola.
I sit down with my mother outside in her last
moments at home, in her last moments before
the Home, the crazy talk a moment suspended.
A bird passes. I tell her many times after on the phone
how her wisteria has grown to command our patio…
the lattice filling, portals closing, shade. There is nothing
parallel to do in language. Do you see?
Do you see in the null shine how we’re leaving
everything behind? I refer you to the catalogue.
— from “Janicon”, published in crawlspace, winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (if you click on the link, you can see the cover of the book; it features Janicon LXXXIX)
I was looking out a few minutes ago towards my garden and saw its gate:
And now at my desk, I can see another portal:
This morning an orange-crowed warbler perched in this particular opening, singing. I was at a loss to express how I felt at the song coming in my window as the bird sang in the old burnished iron. The song so simple in the morning light, the tendrils of wisteria, brought by John’s mother so many years ago (and from her mother, before that, tucked into plastic bags for the long flight from London to Vancouver). So much has been left behind but so much has gathered too in the areas around gates, iron grates, bridges over rivers dark with mud and the sound of magpies. Do you see? I wanted to ask but by the time I rose from my chair to call John, the warbler had flown.
Last Sunday, we drove from Edmonton to Drumheller with our Edmonton family — they were in a second rental car and their route paralleled ours going and returning so that when we got a speeding ticket on the way back, just south of Camrose, they were on a different highway and got their speeding ticket ten minutes later just north of Stettler (even though we’d texted them to tell them to slow down!). Anyway, we arrived at the little miner’s cabin we’d booked and then we decided to drive out to Wayne for lunch. (I sent a postcard from Wayne for those of you who read this blog on a regular basis.)
I love the bridges on Highway 10X. The ones between Rosedale and Wayne are painted an aqua that echoes the sky in certain lights and reminds me of robin eggs, duck eggs, the paint on fading farmhouses from my childhood. I keep thinking about those bridges, the geometry of their construction, the way they focus the way you look at the Rosebud River through them, the way you remember the walk you took with two of your grandchildren from the Last Chance Saloon, Henry confiding that mooses wear antlers (the way we might wear a favourite hat), and Kelly musing about the lights flashing from her sneakers. We were heading to the play area adjacent to the Wayne Community Campground (featuring a horseshoe pit, self-registration, and drinking water) and it seemed, in a moment when the earth tilted, that we were walking back in time, that we might not stop but simply enter the hills and never return.
I wrote about the river and its bridges here . It’s become established in my consciousness in the way something does, without bidding, and you dream about it, you smell it (sharp scent of willow buds and muddy water). The bridges and the river I first encountered in 2016 have an added layer now, children talking quietly as we head towards the slides and swings and the opportunity to self-register. It’s cold. We all huddle a little more snugly into our jackets and stick together for warmth. You can’t hear the magpies everywhere in this picture but I’ll never forget them.
9. The Rosebud River, between Home Coulee and the Red Deer River
A Blackfoot word, Akokiniskway, meaning “the river of many roses”.
Stop, I kept saying, stop. It was cold, we’d slept one night in the honeymoon suite at the Rosedeer Hotel in Wayne after an indifferent dinner in the atmospheric Last Chance Saloon. Our room was on the second floor. The third floor was apparently haunted, rooms where Klu Klux Klan thugs hired by the mines had beaten men identified as Communists. Burned them with cigarettes. Tarred them and feathered them and sometimes went too far. Our sleep was uninterrupted by the past. We’d risen, shivered our way to the cold car, and we left before 7 a.m., everything around us silent and crisp with frost, though we’d hiked in shirtsleeves the afternoon before above the townsite to look into old mine shafts, to lean down to prairie crocus, sunlight warm on our arms. Stop,
stop. Because the river had something to tell me. I couldn’t quite hear. Something, something, about miners my grandfather might have known and hardship and what the fallen fenceposts had kept contained. Magpies squabbled in the willows. The wild roses were not in leaf, not yet, but the bushes grew on the banks, promising faint perfume and a profusion of pink blossoms by June.
There was something that I knew as we stopped by the bridge. Air, the light falling over the hoodoos on Highway 10x. Magpies, whose ancestors may have shadowed my grandfather on his way to work, my aunts and uncles on their way to school, their lunch in lard pails. My thumb on the rusting blue of the bridge rasped a few syllables I’d never heard before, a whisper, You could live here. This road could be your route home. Stop.
Last Friday, in Edmonton, we wandered over to La Boule for coffee and a pastry (the best hazelnut croissant ever) and then to Alhambra, a bookstore nearby. I chose a couple of books for my Edmonton grandchildren and then saw Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks. A year or so ago, I read The River of Consciousness and wrote about it here. I haven’t read all his books but many, perhaps more than half. Recently I went back to his Hallucinations to figure out some stuff about perception and brain function as a result of a retinal injury suffered in November when I fell on ice in Edmonton. I have curiosity and a little intelligence but Oliver Sacks had a truly fine mind. I bought Gratitude and on our second night in Edmonton, sleepless, I got up to read it. It’s not a long book but it’s full of wisdom and beauty. And the prose is so interesting, the way it takes the reader into the writer’s life, into his childhood, into his understanding of his own nature and sexuality, his devotion to, then reliance on, psychotropic drugs (for a time), and his acceptance of his own death.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
It’s a brief book but complete. You read it and you realize that you must do what you need to do. Not wait for the next week or two when you can get away to do your work, preferably in a remote cabin with meals brought to the door in a basket. Not after you’ve cleaned the house or finished reconciling your finances or dealt with the latest fiasco in your love life. Sure, those things take up a lot of space but I agree with Dr. Sacks that we don’t get these years back.
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
And the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have a month left to live or a decade. Or three. These are the years. These are the days. If I had my younger self to talk to, to console (as I wish I had this older self to talk to in the years when I wondered if I’d ever have time to write), to advise and encourage, I’d tell her that the years pass so quickly that she shouldn’t wait for what she might think is adequate time. I am in that river of consciousness now, at this point in my life, deep in its waters, sometimes chilly and in danger of losing balance in the current, sometimes so utterly joyous that I have to pull myself back to the shore by force of will. Everything feels available to me, or worth pursuing if it’s not right at hand:
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.
A few weeks ago, I woke with a novel (or maybe novella) in mind, a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, and I began to write it. I put it aside because I have some work to finish but I know it’s waiting. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Yes, she will. Or she will grow them.