“…a secret cove with an old house”

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.


sunday cabin

Our friend wondered if we’d like to go by boat to Nelson Island on Sunday to visit Harry Roberts’ old cabin at Cape Cockburn. Well, yes! It was clear and blue and on the way we stopped at Quarry Bay where the granite for the Legislative buildings in Victoria was quarried. You could see the old workings hidden now by trees. What you could not imagine was how someone had found that beautiful granite a hundred years ago or more, knew how straight it would split, and then figured out how to get it to Victoria in quantities sufficient to build huge structures. You also thought of nearby Hardy Island where the granite for the Ogden Point breakwater came from and how you’ve looked closely at the workmen’s marks visible on some of the blocks, marks made more than a century ago.

In this tumbledown house,
thought and wind move alike.

The cabin sits on its south-facing rise above a small pebbled cove. Our friend, an ideal guide because he spent part of his childhood on Nelson Island and a good portion of the rest of his life thus far researching, publishing, and commemorating the history of B.C. in general and our coast in particular, told us Harry’s colourful story and showed us the cabin’s interior, the summer kitchen, the sturdy steps leading to a bedroom I found myself dreaming a whole life within, and then we walked among the old fruit trees, eating Transparents and talking. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were not alone, that if I just listened carefully enough, I would hear someone cooking, a hoe in the stone-rimmed garden, the clatter of shells as someone opened oysters for dinner.

cabin interior

So now it’s a Tuesday morning and I’m sitting at my desk, remembering how it felt to walk into what the cabin still held of the past, its open spaces lonely for children, for the scent of woodsmoke, for someone reading poetry aloud by the fire. I could live here, I said, and in a way it’s true. Picking apples for a pie, making sure the lamps were trimmed, the water pump primed. When we sat on the beach and when we swam in the cold clean water, a seal kept watch, its head glossy in sunlight. What did it know of who left and who returned?

House: blue mountains, rain, surf stumbling on the reef.
House of live, house of childhood,
a shake and log shamble, windworn and storm white;
its desires and regrets a matter of moments
half-seen through another life. Even so
love was enormous in this secrecy.
The stars sang in the twilit garden;
morning was moonlight,
raspberries, wine clear as the wind and cold.


Note: the passages of poetry are taken from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek” by the late Charles Lillard (another dear friend), published in Shadow Weather (Sono Nis Press, 1996)

“A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as ‘a love song’.”


My family left yesterday morning, in a rush of activity, one group heading to Earls Cove to cross Jervis Inlet and the other south, to Langdale, to cross Howe Sound. (Angelica flew home on Wednesday, across Georgia Strait.) On our way back from Langdale yesterday, John and I stopped for a swim at the little pebble cove we swam at on Wednesday. It was lovely but melancholy to sit on the logs after the swim, drying in the sun, everything quiet. Families fill such space with their needs, their complications, their various personalities, the sheer energy of their lives. I’m sure there is an equation for what happens when 11 people gather, who were once 5, and who have lived away from the home they shared (1 of them) for longer than they were in residence there, who left and returned more times than a single person could count. What is the mathematics of love in this situation?

I have been a mother for more years than I wasn’t. I didn’t expect to be. I wasn’t much interested in dolls when I was a child and didn’t create elaborate family structures in any kind of play. Yet now I see the possibilities of those structures everywhere. It’s after 1 a.m. where I am now. I’ve come down to my desk to do some work and my study window is wide open to the night. There are coyotes vocalizing in the woods as I write this. They’re farther away then they were the first night all of my children and their partners and their own children were here, when the song was one harmonic tangle. I’m listening tonight and wondering. Did one parent just bring back meat? Has one youngster strayed? Those quick sharp yips—am I right in hearing anxiety? Urgency? The harmony is missing. They’ve lost the song, at least temporarily. Maybe the parents are too busy for simple music.

And now? Silence.

I came down tonight to do some work on a collection of essays I’ve recently finished. Or almost finished. I have one more to write, after I visit Ivankivtsi, my grandfather’s village, in September. But for the most part, Blue Portugal is complete. It rambles, it investigates blue, retinal damage, aging, textile work, ventures into ampelography, into family history, it attempts to learn the dance movements of Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor, BWV 1004, it listens to Janáček:

                                              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”. The children are running ahead, a bag of apples slung over the back of the oldest.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of writer I would have been if I’d never met my husband, been a mother, never lived the life I do? Would I have pursued a PhD in classical literature, would I have learned to play a cello, would I have settled in a little house at Ballynakill, the one a man I loved was thinking of buying? Would I have been more systematic in my thinking? If my desk is a reflection of the state of my mind, then woe is me: there are worry dolls, a tray of shells and fossils, a line of books ranging from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey at one end to Exploring Victoria’s Architecture by Segger and Franklin at the other, bracketing poetry, natural history, a Greek grammar, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, a few Loeb editions, and Margaret Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History. The other day my older grandson asked me about the bones on my desk and I told him they were the pelvic bones of our middle dog, Lily. (I wrote about her pelvis years ago and then again in an essay in Blue Portugal. So I’m not actually finished with any of this material yet. That’s why I keep it to hand.)

I wonder if the coyotes have gone to sleep? I can hear something else. It might be the weasel who has her nest under the compost and who I’ve seen several times now, looking up at me from one corner of it. And a tree frog is creaking out in the grapes. The other night, as we finished our last meal together on the deck, I felt something on my bare leg. Was it Eddy’s hand? He is one and was crawling under the table. But no. It was a frog, making its way from the table pedestal to the jade tree under the eaves. The other children crowded under the table to look at the small beautiful creature clinging to my leg. Later, in bed, I had to wonder if that had actually happened, the whole dinner, the frog, the gathering of children under the French tablecloth.

                                             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, my four grandchildren running in the tall grass.

a summer song

work crew

The work crew was out yesterday, easing out the bumpy parts at the bottom of our driveway. They’d eaten blueberry pancakes and bacon and had energy to spare.

Trees swayin’ in the summer breeze
Showin’ off their silver leaves
As we walked by

Later in the morning we drove to Egmont and some played football on the field. Then the Egmont Heritage Centre, one of our favourite small museums. It’s surrounded by old logging equipment, a vintage fire engine, a Pelton wheel, and filled with exhibits of antique Easthope engines, chainsaws, fishing floats, albums detailing the families of Egmont, Indigneous and other, the fascinating history of Doriston, and a bench where kids can handle wrenches and other tools probably unfamiliar to them. Forrest, who worked at the Canadian Museum of History for 4 years, then the City of Ottawa Museums, and is now a curator at Library and Archives Canada, observed that the Egmont Heritage Centre bats well above average for display and interest.

Last night we ate barbecued lamb and garden eggplants, green pie made with kale, lambs quarters, chickweed, some miner’s lettuce, and arugula, yoghourt green with dill and laden with garlic, and a bright salad of garden tomatoes and cucumbers. After the kids were in bed, we talked in the kitchen, drinking little thimbles of damson gin.

Sweet sleepy warmth of summer nights
Gazing at the distant lights
In the starry sky

Tonight it’s steak and spot prawns and I’ll take the kids to dig some red potatoes. Just now they’re getting ready to walk over to the Iris Griffith Centre with their parents who knew Iris well (you can read about Iris in this excellent book) and were once babysat by her while her husband Billy (who donated the Easthopes to the Egmont Museum) and I attended a meeting when we were on the board of the Pender Harbour Health Centre. When they woke the next morning, they were so eager to tell me that Iris could juggle! (Could she ever!)

in the old orchard

Tomorrow everyone leaves, apart from Grandad John and me. We’ll clean the house and put things back in place and sit in the quiet and wonder where the weeks went.

They say that all good things must end some day
Autumn leaves must fall
But don’t you know that it hurts me so
To say goodbye to you
Wish you didn’t have to go

The summer isn’t over, of course. There’s still the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival coming up and all sorts of other things to fill the days and weeks. But this? The sound of children shrieking and crying, their parents soothing and coaxing, all of us laughing at dinner? It’s felt like everything.

And when the rain
Beats against my window pane
I’ll think of summer days again
And dream of you


Thanks to Chad and Jeremy for the soundtrack.

“I’m always five hundred miles…”

A perfect day. Sunlight, ocean, the voices of my grandchildren, the beauty of my children and their partners in the water. We all drove down the Coast to take Angie to the plane for her flight back across Georgia Strait to Victoria and we had time for a picnic at Trail Bay. Kelly noticed the blue mountains across the water and I told her that was the island where her other grandparents live, the ones she’ll see on the weekend. We’d gone to a small pebble beach, the tide low-ish, rocks warm in the sun. I knew my older son Forrest would swim; he keeps a life-list of water: rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans. And I thought the children would wade. But then Cristen went in, buoyant in the tide. Then Brendan. John stripped off his shorts, took off his unders, and put the shorts on again. (We’d already had our morning swim in Ruby Lake so when we were getting ready to drive down to Sechelt, we both agreed we wouldn’t bother taking our bathing suits. Famous last words.) I was dying to swim but there I was, in a linen dress. What to do? Oh, Mum, said my daughter, swim in your underwear. So I did. Off came the dress and who was to know the sports bra and striped underpants weren’t a bathing suit? Well, I think it was obvious they weren’t. But I didn’t care.

eddy and grandad

It was so wondrous to swim in that mild green water. To let yourself be carried out a distance, then lifted back to shore. To look at the blue mountains beyond. I haven’t felt like this since I swam in Portugal, said Forrest. Not so alive in the water, so buoyant. And me? Maybe not since Crete. The children found rocks, a few shells, one fell and cried, three went into the water, and afterwards we walked along the shore for ice-cream. When we came home, I took out the compost and saw a weasel in one corner of the new compost box, looking back at me, its eyes bright and alert. It slipped out of the box but when I brought the children out to look for it, we saw it in between the two boxes, waiting for us to leave. I think it might have a den under the box; it might be feeding its young on the mice that come for the seeds and vegetable parings.

Last night my children and their partners went out for supper to Egmont while John and I cared for our grandchildren. They ate a simple supper, had their baths, and we read them stories before bed. We sang songs. In Arthur’s room, I tried to remember the words to “Five Hundred Miles”. My favourite version the one Roseanne Cash sings on The List, her album of songs from her father Johnny’s list of essential country songs.

All these years and all these roads
Never led me back to you
I’m always five hundred miles away from home
Away from home, away from home
Always out here on my own
I’m still five hundred miles away from home
I’m still five hundred miles away from home
Later I read in the kitchen while the outside lamp was softened by moths. When the kids returned from Egmont, I went to bed and listened to them laughing downstairs. John was already asleep. They live so far from this home but still they return. Today Angie turned to me as we sat on a log watching the others swim and said, I don’t want to leave. I knew what she meant. They’ll all be gone on Saturday and the house will be tidy again, but quiet. Away from home, away from home, always out here on my own. I am that woman swimming in her pink striped underpants in the deep generous ocean, looking at her family on the shore.

overheard, a Greek chorus, while watering


Grandson A, age 3: the dinosaurs all died a long time ago
Grandson H, age 2: all dead, all dead

Grandson A, age 3: the dogs who lived in the doghouse are all dead
Grandson H, age 2: dogs are all dead

Both of them, on the grass, in dream-mode, singing: We’re picking flowers for Grandma, we’re picking flowers for Grandma.


And just now, H., age 2, told me, “Long ago, I’ll be a grown-up!”

the waning buck moon

girls and prosecco

I didn’t sleep much last night. I’d wake and realize my entire family was sleeping in this house where we raised our children and to which they’ve returned with their own children or (as with Aunty Angie) on her own, by small plane across Georgia Strait, and I felt so excited at the prospect of swimming today, watching the kids play elaborate games with a soccer ball and badminton racquets and frisbees. Would the huge prime rib roast be enough for all of us? Which Desert Hills red wine would pair with it? Would the kids like the dinosaur pinata we are going to hang from the clothesline later today? I could smell the smoke from our campfire (or firecamp, as Francophone Manon calls it) last evening where we roasted hotdogs wrapped in bannock and ate blueberry and peach galette. Smoky hair on the pillow reminds me of our summer camping trips across the province when my children were small, sleeping in the tent and hearing my family breathing like a single organism.

The waning buck moon was just passing our bedroom when suddenly the entire coyote family began to howl and yip just on the bank below the house. Were they hunting? And (oh!) where was Winter the cat? (Hidden, on the upper deck, listening too.) The sound was a tangle of harmonies, low voice, high voice, and (almost certainly the mother’s) middle vibrato. John and I held hands in the moonlight, while the song briefly followed the moon to the west. stopping as suddenly as it began.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.

—From Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

redux: how the sky changes

Note: this summer began hot and then cooled down. There’s been enough rain for the campfire ban to be lifted and I know our family, arriving tomorrow and next weekend, will be happy about the prospect of firecamp (as our Francophone Manon calls it), with bannocks cooked on sticks and s’mores and single-malt under the stars…In 2016, I was thinking about weather and skies.


This time last summer I was yearning for rain. There were dry weeks. Months. Mornings I’d wake to the clear blue sky and I’d begin the watering early, before the sun was up. This time last summer I was picking buckets of tomatoes and beans. The tomatillos were 7 feet tall.

This year the days are mostly grey. I think there might be one tomato just beginning to ripen. Beans are in flower. Tomatillos are perhaps a foot and a half tall — a couple of them. The others — and to be fair, these were only discovered in the compost a week or two ago — are maybe 10 inches.

So the sky changes. The garden is different. In some ways everything is different. With that grey sky comes a series of small dark shadows. Some of them are personal and some of them are global and I’m not sure where the division is right now. Or if there even is one. Or what to do. The clouds cover the sun most days. Their darkness is, I hope, momentary. Transitory. Yesterday when I woke, the sky was grey again. And I didn’t want to stay home, looking out at it, trying to shake its affect. Turning on the news every hour. Let’s get the mid-morning ferry to Powell River, I said, and so we did. I love the ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay. Sometimes we see porpoises, but not yesterday. But the mountains, the water coming down off them in silver falls, a few eagles, isolated cabins on points of land. Groves of arbutus on south-facing islands.

We drove as far as Okeover Inlet, Lucinda Williams on the stereo, to the Laughing Oyster for lunch. It has the feel of the old coast — its deck of weathered wood, its view over water


And somehow the clouds were not quite so dark as those at home. (See that little strand of blue, stitching land to land across water?) I felt I could see as far north as anyone could want and the food was wonderful, particularly this lemon semifreddo I had for dessert.

lemon semifreddo

And the ferry home was that old familiar route, past Nelson Island, and through Agamemnon Channel.

Lookin’ out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road

–Lucinda Williams

It was our gravel driveway, the car wheels bringing us home, and they were my tears at bedtime, for all that could not be clear and blue, a sky, a world, a darkness as clouds blocked out the sun.

“heat from a single woodstove”

in progress

In the night I was awake, thinking about Blue Portugal, the collection of essays I’ve recently completed. Almost completed, because there is space for one more, to be written after I visit my grandfather’s village in September. Last month I wrote about printing the manuscript and sitting down to edit it. I did that. I made my marks in red pen on the black text and then I entered the changes. Then I moved on to other work. (I’ve begun another novella and mostly I can’t stop thinking about it in that excited way that new work suspends one in, a state of heightened consciousness.)

But last night, awake, because I realized that one essay, “blueprint”, needs something more. But what? I resisted the urge to get up and come down in the dark to see what might be done because my life is very busy right now and I felt I needed to be my bed, under the quilt, beside my sleeping husband. I needed rest, not the excitement of sitting at my desk with the little lamp shining a light on my text. I talked myself back to sleep. But just before I fell into the warm tunnel of sleep, I scribbled a note on paper on my bedside table. An asterix and the words, Look to see what Robert Venturi has to say about his mother’s house. And now, at my desk, I have the book beside me: Mother’s House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, edited by Frederic Schwartz. It’s a book I read with avid curiousity when I was writing the first draft of “blueprint”. How the anticipated function of a building influences its design. I particularly enjoyed Venturi’s own essays in the book, one of them about designing a house for his mother in the early 1960s, the other considering the influence of the building 25 years later.

In the night, it seemed to be that the book might provide a small element for my own essay which I’ve felt needed an epigraph, a sign-post, an architectural note to the reader (and to me). And this morning, here it is, from Venturi’s essay, “Residence in Chestnut Hill”;

These complex combinations do not achieve the easy harmony of a few motifs based on exclusion – based, that is, on “less is more.” Instead, they achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.

He is summing up how he reconciled the compositional elements of the house he designed and built for his mother Vanna, the diagonals, the rectangular spaces, the scale, what architectural critics have called “the casual asymmetries”, the spacial requirements wedded to function and form. And how this passage speaks to me of what I’ve tried to do in an essay that remembers John’s work at a drafting table as he worked on plans for this house, that tries to figure out a blueprint from my grandparents’ papers, and arranges, throughout the work, a small showing of the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.

floor plan

In my essay, I have a section of questions and answers. I asked the questions and John wrote out detailed and (to me) fascinating answers about the process for creating the rudimentary plans for our house.

3. When you look at the plans now, how do you feel? What do you remember about drawing them?

They make me proud a little. I did what I had to do to build a good house.

Our needs were perhaps simpler (and more economically restrained) than Vanna Venturi’s but reading a little of my essay this morning makes me realize that function and form are yoked in the most interesting ways, in architecture as well as writing.

Aesthetically the change in height indoors was a way to break up large open plan spacing, and to differentiate between rooms but still allow easy distribution of heat from a single woodstove, for example.

redux: old postcards from Ruby Lake

In anticipation of a family visit later this month, I’m reposting this, from 2017. Some things change and some things never change. Thank goodness.


We’ve lived near Ruby Lake since 1980. Well, that’s not quite right. We bought our property in 1980, began building our house in 1981, when Forrest was two weeks old (we lived in a tent while building…), and moved in on John’s birthday in 1982, just a month before Brendan was born. But I have to say the property and the lake have been our home territory since we first came to camp on a little bluff on Ruby Lake while looking at land with a real estate agent in early 1980, just a few months after we got married.

I loved swimming in the lake. The water is clean, though some summers the duck itch is irritating. So are the big boats, though the ones with (is it?) open-exhaust systems are not permitted; not permitted, but no one enforces it. And so young men (they are almost always young men) like to tear around the lake, pulling each other on skis and innertubes. The lake doesn’t have a lot of public access so the areas that are accessible are often very busy now. It didn’t used to be that way. When we first came to swim in Ruby Lake, there was a rough track down to the shore at the place where the Regional District has now made a family-friendly park. You walked through hardhack and ocean spray and entered the water amid drifts of wild mint.

To get around the busy nature of the park, where we often couldn’t find a space for our family, we’d take picnics out to one of the small islands in the boat we bought with an income tax return when the kids were small. I wrote about those picnics in “Love Song”, included in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book:

Out in the boat with a picnic to eat on the island in the lake, the island we call White Pine for the little grove on its high point, or else “Going to Greece” for the scent of yarrow and dry grass. I spread out a bamboo mat on the spine of hill and brush ants from my legs while one child dives from the rocks and another swims underwater. The third is learning to start the boat motor, pulling the cord and adjusting the choke.

This morning I was looking for old photographs and came across a few that brought those summers vividly to mind:

postcard 2.jpg

You could sit on that grassy spine of the island and the world was as you wanted it.

postcard 1

There are manzanitas growing near the water and some scrubby pines on the rise and in spring, chocolate lilies and death camas. The scent of yarrow. Snakes, turtles.

For the past few summers, I haven’t done much swimming. By the time the sun is high and it’s hot, the lake is so busy. The prospect of finding a place among the others on the shore is daunting. John goes every day, late afternoon, and has a favourite place away from the beach. He swims off some rocks. But I like to ease into the water (I never learned to dive) and I’d rather stay home.

But last week I thought, Why not swim early? And why not? All winter we swam in the local pool, in part to deal with some side-effects of the health crisis I faced last fall (autoimmune stuff going on in one knee), and I loved being in the water again. Loved the buoyancy, the lightness of being, the opportunity for long meditative thinking as I swam lengths in the warm water. So after the first round of watering, after the tomato plants have been given their drink, and the roses too, we head down to the park. No more hardhack right at the shore. No more mint. But also a kind of blessed quiet. No self-respecting jet-boater is up before 9.  We enter the green water and listen to crows overhead. This morning there were a few people camping in the parking lot. A motorhome. A van. A small pick-up truck with a tent in the back. Two motorcycles with a pup tent between them. As we walked down to the beach, a guy was standing by the water. His entire body was tattooed. He told us how beautiful the lake was, that he was going to go swimming, and that he and his partner had arrived too late for the campsite at Klein Lake so they came back to the park and put their tent up by their bikes. I knew John was remembering his own first glimpse of Ruby Lake, in the early 1970s, with a girlfriend— they also arrived on motorbikes after dark and camped in a clearing off the highway. When they woke the next morning, they saw the lake below them. He never forgot its beauty. That’s why we’re here.

In a few weeks, some of the kids (and one grandson) will arrive for a week. They spend as much time in the water as they can. There will be towels everywhere, and the smell of wet hair. I can’t wait.

How long can a girl dive before her father accords her a perfect score, how many times can a boy circumnavigate the island with the throttle on low? Another practises the dead man’s float. Three years, or six. Drift on a raft under the low-growing spirea and bog laurel, count turtles on logs, crush a few leaves of wild mint in your hands while the years accumulate. Nine years, or twelve. ( from “Love Song”)

postcard 3.jpg