“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” (from ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Virginia Woolf)
Yesterday, using the new printer that arrived on Friday (old one, perfectly serviceable, would no longer talk to the aging computer it was linked to and of course there are no longer drivers available, etc.), I printed the first full draft of Blue Portugal & Other Essays, a collection I’ve been working on for the past two years. In fact, it’s not quite finished. There’s a place holder, a title, for the final essay: “Museum of the Multitude Village”. This last essay I hope to write after a trip to my grandfather’s village in Bukovina in September. In trying to locate more Kishkans in that area, I discovered a museum in a neighbouring village, founded by one Vasily Kishkan, described as a writer and teacher.
This collection surprises me and it doesn’t. I wanted to pursue some threads and I did that. I also found myself revisiting landscapes with new information, trying to make sense of what I already knew, or thought I knew. If I was trying to write a book to fit the current market, I’d be very disappointed now because this isn’t that kind of book. I have my touchstones for what I do and thank goodness they are always close at hand. Last night I was re-reading Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs, a book in which the author explores Woolf’s life through her writing, including diaries, letters, and unpublished work. She invites the reader to follow Woolf as she writes, edits, faces both uncertainty and the true possibilities of her work. Last night I was particularly interested in the chapter on the writing of Roger Fry’s biography, a book she began with hope and excitement and concluded with something like despair as the machinery of war sounded everywhere around her (the book was published in 1940). As solace, she wrote some autobiographical sketches, including “A Sketch of the Past”, the most beautiful essay about her childhood at Talland House in St. Ives. I remember walking to the road above Talland House on a trip to England in 2005, entranced by its views and garden. Could I hear voices from where I stood on the road? Coming from the trees? Maybe.
Yesterday, with my newly printed manuscript in hand, I sat outside with my red pen. I’ve already edited most of the essays but one I finished recently, “Mapping, an Unknown Place”, was still pretty rough. I didn’t realize how rough until I had the actual pages in hand. I’m still that old 20th century writer, the one who needs to see the pages following one another in actual time and space, not on a screen. So I scribbled and made notes to myself and spent time at my computer entering the changes.
And realized this morning that I was writing to my father. The essay tries to find him (again) in the place where he was a child. I’ve gone there before but this time I had more information, as though that would allow me to be closer to him. Did it? I don’t know. But it made me feel remorse for how our relationship left too much unsaid. On this day, of all days, I want to give myself a second chance with him and one of the opportunities that writing gives us is just that. Let me then, Virginia Woolf said, descend again into that stream. And oh, yes, that’s what I hope for.
The map I have been trying to draw eludes me. I look and look again. Was it here the washtubs were stored, in full view of the singular hill, was that the river beyond the cottonwoods, the road with its little haze of dust? Yearning is a cloudy overlay. As much as I want to see the thing clear and definite, the land, the house, the road leading to town, and away to the places my father walked, looking for bones, I am lost in the contours of paper and dirt. My thumb rasps old paper. Wandering down the gravel road alongside the barren ground with its tufts of tough grass, broken bottles at the edge, a few brave grasshoppers clicking, I keep my face averted from the truck with the Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Workers Program sign painted across its side. I will it away. Away. On the map I can’t draw or annotate but keep clear in my imagination, I can find the exact location where my Canadian family (all foreign workers, domestic, miners, subsistence farmers) began. The cone-shaped hill holds more than its layers of mudstone, sandstone, shales, and seams of dark coal. Within the hill, the fossilized bodies of dinosaurs large and small, later mammals, reptiles, fish, trees as unlikely as giant redwoods and mulberries in that dry land. On its steep slope, my father lingers. My finger traces the road, the place where Michichi Creek enters the Red Deer River, its elbows of ice and the pike and walleye resting in the shadows. I smell the mineral scent of the waters, far off rain in the clouds. My father is riding towards me, hell-bent for town. He is 3 years old. He is 13. He a man bent by the news that his brother died. I open my arms to him, full of questions, full of love.