how road music leads to an essay

We just spent a few days away from home, driving up to Lillooet the first night, then taking Highway 99 through Fountain and Pavilion where the road meets Cariboo Highway 97. This is the loveliest way to see the Fraser River with the benches on either side falling to the fishing rocks, everything grey-green with sage.

fish rocks

These roads are perfect for Emmylou Harris, her sweet voice singing us the whole way to Ashcroft and more of her the next day driving down Highway 5A to Merritt. “The Shores of White Sand”,

‘Cause my heart’s been skipping
Like a flat rock on water
And with each ripple
The further I’m gone

and Patty Griffin’s gorgeous “Moon Song”:

Followed your road till the sky ran out


And though it never ran out, that huge blue sky, you could lose your heart to the wide pastures with cattle and paint ponies, a coyote watching the river, and all the forlorn cabins:

Time go easy on me tonight
I’m one of the lost sheep alright

I kept making notes. Why do some road trips lead to essays and some don’t? I have no idea. But there are times when the landscape shimmers, when the mare turning her face to you when you stop by the fence is somehow your soulmate, when the trumpeter swans on Nicola Lake swim close to the shore so that you can see 3 adults and 3 juvenile cygnets, still grey but nearly the size of the parents and the other adult with them. You text your children to say how the park where you once camped every summer with them is as beautiful as ever, and unchanged, and two of them respond immediately. So you are all there, in that moment, walking down for a swim from your campsite, the black dog Lily settled in the shade of the tent-trailer.

across nicola lake

We’d never taken the road up to Tunkwa Lake and there it was, open and empty. Past ranches, past marshes with remnants of blackbird nests, a field with three sleepy donkeys and the dog keeping guard coming to sniff me out when I stopped to photograph his charges:


We listened to the entire Western Stars cd on the Tunkwa Lake road. It’s like an old-fashioned orchestral tone poem, in a way, with brief intimate lyrics:

I lie awake in the middle of the night
Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right
Now the heart’s unsteady, and the night is still
All I’ve got’s this melody, and time to kill

and huge anthems that somehow match the country we were driving through:

Moonlight, moon bright
Where’s my lucky star tonight
The streets lost in lamp light
Then suddenly inside
Suddenly inside
There goes my miracle…

All the while, making notes, little scratches in my journal, the colour of the birches, the sound of geese high, high, and the rounded river stones at least half a kilometer above the Thompson at Walachin, a line of geological history telling us what happened, and when. Two osprey nests on the Walhachin bridge, the old houses Bert Footner designed and built decades before he was our neighbour in Royal Oak, a man as old as god, it seemed like, when he came out to sit on his shooting stick and talk to me about horses.

On Tuesday, driving back from Merritt, I saw the road unfold in front of us as Van Morrison sang,

Traveling like a stranger in the night, all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down
Over the mountain, got to get you right in my sight

and it’s a song I know every word, every note, and I sing along always:

And we’re driving down that ancient road
Shining like diamonds in the night, oh diamonds in the night
All along the ancient highway
Got you in my sight, got you in my mind
Got you in my arms and I’m praying, and I’m gonna pray
I’m gonna pray, to my higher self, ah don’t let me down
Don’t let me down, give me the fire, ah give me the fire

The memory of our fire, the one we built with resiny pine, and kept our coffee pot warm on a rock in its ashes, that fire, I could lead you to it in a campsite on Nicola Lake in 1988, children in their pajamas roasting a last marshmallow, everything golden with pollen from the pine that spreads its generous branches over our tent. Don’t let me down.



highway 5

highway 5

I woke at 5:30 and opened the curtain of my room on the 5th floor of the Plaza Hotel in Kamloops. We’ve stayed here many times. I love its placement in the older part of the city and how from this particular room I can see Highway 5, cars heading to and from the Yellowhead Highway. Sometimes when we stay here, we drive down Highway 5A to Quilchena and Merritt—that’s what we’ll do today—and sometimes we are returning from somewhere. Like Edmonton, the first time we met our granddaughter Kelly in 2014. (When we got the call to say she’d been born, we loaded up presents in our car and raced to hold her, the tiniest girl, and to congratulate her parents.)

This morning I said to John, it makes me wistful to look at the cars heading north on Highway 5 and he replied that we could easily change our plans and go to Edmonton to visit our family there. But I reminded him that they are all heading to Europe later this week on matters of mathematical import. That little girl, now 5, and her brother, 3, will live in Paris and Munich for 5 weeks and then spend a week in Oxford. I made them drawstring bags to take on the flight. When they open them, they’ll discover magnetic games (Snakes and Ladders, Tic Tac Toe, Racing Cars), puzzles, finger puppets, and little pads and coloured pencils. So even if we did drop everything and drive the road I can see from my window, we’d be returning a day or so later. Hardly worth the drive.

So we’ll stick to our plan of meandering down Highway 5A, through the most beautiful grasslands on earth, and stopping to look at lakes, particular pines, like the one in this post for example. and maybe driving to Monck Park where we camped every summer when our children were young. I have in mind an essay and will be taking notes. Some things never change.

postcard, Fraser and Thompson Canyons

Through the tunnels, whoosh, the moment of realizing you are inside a mountain. Then stopping in Lytton to look down to where the Thompson sidles into the Fraser, driving Highway 12 along the Fraser River, first in light, then in shadow. John slowed for a coyote standing on the edge of the road, gazing at the river, but I missed it, drawn instead to the ochre flanks of the mountain on my side of the road. John said, I am so grateful to have a life where I can drive this road and see this beautiful country. Me too. Wish you were here.



When we came blackberry picking in early September, we missed the berries on this low plant, Rubus laciniatus; its fruit ripens after the Himalayan blackberries of early to mid August. In the patch where we went with our buckets, we did pick a bucket of the cut-leaf blackberries. Walking yesterday, I saw a small bird (too quick for me to be more specific) darting in under these strong canes. Even though these are an introduced species, they feed birds, and they feed the bears who are lurking around, waiting for the salmon to enter the creeks. I see seeds in coyote scats up where we pick berries every year. I could have picked a handful yesterday, there were enough for that but I left them, regretting it afterwards. The wonderful American poet Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Blackberry Eating”, ends this way, and making weather adjustments for Vermont, where he lived, and our more balmy west-coast, the timing is just about right:

…the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

I love the term, “introduced species”. It sounds so formal. Too formal, I suspect, for the actual process of plants finding a foothold in a place not their own, or at least not to begin with. They arrive in so many ways, as ballast, mixed with other seed, in imported plant matter, wrapped in damp cotton in the suitcases of those arriving from afar, wanting to bring something of their old lives with them. (There’s a walnut in my little change purse, picked up from a park in Kyiv last month, and some hollyhock seeds from the churchyard in my grandfather’s village.) I’m not making light of what can be hugely and dangerously problematic: an invasive species edging out a native one, creating imbalances in ecosystems, and everything else that can and does happen. But I think of the benefits too, though predicting them, weighing them against the damage, is not science I’m qualified to engage in. How many gardeners choose seeds that remind them of plants their parents or their grandparents grew? One of my favourite tomatoes is Black Krim, with origins in Crimea. I don’t grow many potatoes but like to have a few hills of French fingerlings, with their buttery yellow flesh suffused with pink veins.

In Ukraine last month, I loved the fields of sunflowers in the western part of the country, grown for their oil. The fields went on for miles, as lush and vivid as sunlight. They are mainly Black Peredovik sunflowers apparently and now I wonder if those are also the seeds I buy for the bird-feeders in winter? The seed I am currently hand-feeding, in small amounts, to my morning breakfast companion, who eats a few and takes the surplus away to store. I’m going to plant a few next spring to see what happens. I’ll look forward to this over the coming winter, with its long cold days. Here is the bird, paused between seeds.


I am grateful these days to the colour of blackberry leaves, the morning cry of the Steller’s jay in the fir outside my kitchen, the scent of cedar kindling catching in the woodstove in the morning. The other day, as light was falling, I heard geese against the mountain, though I couldn’t see them because of all the cloud. But think of them! Following a signal and a map that we know nothing of, making their scribble against the sky, turning and calling to one another in clouds, and in darkness. I paused on the side of the highway on my way back from the mailbox. Galway Kinnell again:

What do they sing, the last birds
coasting down the twilight,
across woods filled with darkness, their
frayed wings
curved on the world like a lover’s arms
which form, night after night, in sleep,
an irremediable absence.

“…faces looking up, eyes luminous with life.”


This morning, getting ready to head out for my swim, I surprised myself by stepping on something hard on the carpet by my bed. It was a little pearl button, fallen from my nightdress. I put it aside and will sew it on later. Buttons have been on my mind lately as I revise and tidy the final version of a manuscript before trying to find a publisher for it. Buttons, because they figure in many of the individual essays in the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. I use buttons as embellishments on quilts and of course looking at them as I sew them, I am curious about their origins, both the buttons I am sewing as well as the concept of buttons in our culture(s). One of the essays is called “Anatomy of a Button” and here is a little extract:

After my visit to the optometrist, I come home thoughtful. I have seen my inner eye with its small scars, discs securing my retinas in place. I have a dark path of silk and linen and indigo cotton and I have a basket of akoya buttons that I run my thumb over as I shake a few into an oyster shell to see how I might use them on this quilt. I imagine the process of stamping the buttons out of shells and then seeing them sized and polished, drilled with holes (mine all have two holes, though I’ve seen them with four), left loose or sewn onto cards for distribution to stores.

Sinew, gut, veins, threaded through holes in needles made of bone or tied securely to one end, guided through hide and fur, 30,000 to 60,000 years ago, and possibly longer. Plant fibres, twisted and turned until a strong thread was ready to attach one thing to another, snares and nets and fasteners created to hold clothing to the body, tying the knot, using a well-knapped flint to cut the end. In Greek mythology, the Moirai or sisters of Fate spun the threads of our lives, measured them to determine the length of our lives, and cut them to end our time on earth. The threads of our past, our present, and our future spun, and measured, and cut with shears. We know something of this cycle in our own bodies: we are born, the cord connecting us to our mothers cut, our days measured out, our own children born out of our bodies, the cords cut and tied off to make them separate from us, the large artery of our heart distributing oxygenated blood until it can no longer keep us alive. Maybe we have sewn, maybe we have threaded needles, pushed them through cloth, gathered and smoothed and trimmed the threads, and we have sewn buttons, mended tears in our clothing or our children’s clothing, patched and layered, we have drawn cord through a seam and pulled the cord tight until the opening closed and whatever we had gathered in a bag was safe for now. Maybe we have put our mending aside and waited for a quieter moment, sunlight on our favourite chair. A clean oyster shell holding buttons, faces looking up, eyes luminous with life.


I’m in the process of changing my website and I’m no techie so the progress is slow and a little daunting. I’m trying to make it easier on your (my) eyes and maybe simpler to find your way around. But is it simple for me to find my way around the area that allows me to customize the pages or create new widgets or, or, or…? Not yet.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate the big-leaf maple, so beautiful right now. Let’s celebrate the Kwanzan cherry out the back door, filled with sunlight this afternoon.


Last night I had two nightmares, filled with imagery so terrifying that I was afraid to sleep again. I know it was because I watched the election news. Things could have been a lot worse, that’s for certain, but they also could have been a lot better. Our planet deserves our care and attention and I’m afraid the climate emergency won’t receive the focus that it requires at this point in our history. So we’ll do what we can. Look at the trees, dig out the garlic bed, and share breakfast with this loud companion who is waiting by the sliding doors every morning.

wing feathers of jay

redux: years

Note: the year of this post was 2016. Three years later, we are quietly celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary with an afternoon concert, followed by duck (yes!) and a Desert Hills wine in our Waterford glasses. There are now 4 grandchildren. Perhaps a thousand more books. I don’t think we have any Gamay left but there’s one of the Helena rosés. Anyway, this morning the first thing John said to me was, I’d do it all again. And I would too.


I’d stayed with my parents in Victoria the night before my wedding and I hadn’t packed anything warm. So on that cool morning, I put on the dress — white cotton with a laced bodice, circa 1979 (which it was) — and brushed my hair, arranged the wreath of yellow roses my mum’s friend made for me, and pulled on the old Cowichan sweater I’d left in my parents’ basement. Then I got into the Mazda pickup with my dad and we headed out for the 11’o’clock ceremony performed by a Unitarian minister wearing a Welsh fisherman’s smock at an old heritage house turned restaurant near Sidney. My groom was waiting in his Harris tweed jacket and wide corduroy pants. A tie! A belt with a big hand-forged buckle. There’s only one photograph of us because my brother said he’d take pictures and for some reason they didn’t work out. But I’ve never forgotten the day. Or where it led.


I still have the dress, tucked away in a trunk. And that belt is still around. We have accumulated so much over the years, 37 of them. A houseful of furniture, thousands of books, 3 children, two daughters-in-law, 3 grandchildren. A houseful of memories, of sunlight and shadows (because there have been plenty of those), meals at the long pine table with friends and family members, some of them still with us and some of them gone to spirit. Last night I dreamed of my mother, that I wondered where she was and my daughter told me she’d left her at a restaurant because my mum said she loved to sit in the dusk and think about her life. My mother died in 2010 and often when I sit in the dusk, I think of her. One day my daughter will wonder where I am and maybe my granddaughter will tell her a similar story. We never leave, do we? We are always part of a story, if only someone cares to tell it.

Tonight we will sit at the table and eat duck breasts with a sauce of port and dried cherries (and maybe some rhubarb; I’m thinking that the two stalks John cut the other day would go well with the cherries). There will be Savoy cabbage from the garden and a salad of the last arugula. To drink? A gorgeous Desert Hills Gamay in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my 50th birthday, 11 years ago.


The glasses are still intact, though so much of the world has broken and frayed. Not us, not yet, and I look forward to the first sip of the Gamay, late summer distilled in a high-shouldered bottle, the first taste of the duck in its silky sauce, while the dusk gathers around us and the years contain our lives, the stories we still remember and tell.

small music

The season has definitely shifted. Last week the first frost and this week, well, rain. On my way out to the car the other day, I was looking down and nearly stepped on this northwestern salamander in the grass by our little pool.

morning salamander

I picked it up and moved it to a mossy area at the bottom of a stump. Its front feet on my wrist reminded me of how, in summer, I thought I was feeling my grandson Eddy’s soft palm against my calf under the outside table—he was crawling on the deck while the rest of us finished dinner—and looked down to see a tree frog clinging there instead. We do see salamanders and rough-skinned newts in the summer too but somehow this is their season. Bringing logs inside, we often uncover one sheltering in the woodshed. They hold their postures in the cool air, unable to move, and so we’re careful to place them back within the logs. Once, after a deep snowfall, we were walking along the lower part of our driveway, used by neighbours to access their properties on Sakinaw Lake. Someone had driven in earlier and so there were tire tracks in the snow. And there, in the packed snow of a track, was a tree frog, completely still.  How did it get there? Had it fallen from one of the big firs overhead? I picked it up and took it back with us, tucked into my mitten, and put it in a big pot of moss and ferns by our front door. Is it the one of the frogs I hear chirping in the bare rose canes at night, is it the one who paused on my leg and who gave such delight to my grandchildren, is the one who clings to the cool tap on the deck beside the bench where the pot of moss and ferns provided shelter for it that cold winter day?

snow frog

Yesterday, after our swim, we drove over to Anderson Creek to see if the chum salmon have begun to spawn. We parked and walked to the creek. No eagles in the tall trees and no smell of carcasses dragged to the woods by bears. Not yet. The creek was lovely, its tea-coloured water pushing towards Oyster Bay. The riffles made their small music in the rain.

anderson creek

We watched for a bit and didn’t see fish. But then as we turned to leave, I heard a splash and looked again. A single pair of chum hovering against the far bank, under a hollowed out portion of cedar root, their bodies undulating. So it’s beginning and we’ll go back in a few days and watch what we’ve watched for our 38 autumns on this coast. When I see the run at its peak, hundreds of fish swimming and darting and choosing mates, I feel that I’m in the right place in creation’s wheel.

So yesterday I was at Anderson Creek and this morning I’m remembering the Cheremosh River and the Rybnytsya River as I work on yet another draft of an essay about Ukraine. I’m listening to the Rybnytsya tumble through the valylo at the blanket weaver’s studio, feeling its chill from where I stand, watching her pull blankets from the water with a forked stick, telling me that the water is life. How different our lives and yet water is our source, our solace.



redux: the education of a writer

Note: this was posted on this day in 2014. Five years later, I’m still sorting and clearing…


I spent part of the afternoon sorting through a box brought from my mother’s apartment after her death in 2010. I’ve gone through most of the other boxes and left this one until last, partly because every time I looked inside, the smell of my parents — a mixture of my mother’s perfume, old tobacco, and something musty, like old age — drifted up from the contents and I’d put it aside for the time being. But we’re doing a grand clearing out at our house, after the installation of new carpets. One thing leads to another and I’m trying to get rid of the piles of clutter that I’ve pushed aside at every opportunity. My study is almost perfect — walls freshly painted a deep rose and old manuscripts burned in the bonfire of the vanities. I’ve been hoping that once I’ve done this last box and a few bags I hastily emptied dresser drawers into when we cleared out my mother’s place — well, I’m hoping I will feel clear of the job.

Photographs. Recipes for 1960s style dinners clipped from newspapers (“Top with Kraft singles and miniature marshmallows and bake at 350 until golden.”). Christmas cards from forgotten families with portraits inside. A bag of tie-clips with revolvers on them or tiny fishing flies in plastic cubes. My father’s little green book — or at least I think that’s what it is: his name and an address in Beverly Alberta, and then the names of many women, with phone numbers carefully inscribed beside them. (This from before he’d met my mother in 1950.) Crests or whatever you call them unpicked from his naval uniforms as well as the ribbons from his sailor hats, each one bearing the name of a ship: HMCS Naden, HMCS Beacon Hill, HMCS Cerberus.

And old report cards. Mine, from Grade One at Sir James Douglas Elementary School, signed by M. J. Barrett (and I remember her, a nice woman), in which I am awarded one A, for reading (“Theresa reads well. She enjoys reading.”) and mostly Bs for Writing, although there’s a C there too. (“Theresa needs to take more care in the formation of letters.”) Only Fair for Art. Good for Music. Fair for Physical Education. In those years, my parents took us to the Victoria Public Library every week and arranged to meet us at the foyer after we’d all chosen our books for the week. I sprawled on the floor of the children’s section, on the polished floors, and felt like I was in heaven. I think we were allowed to take home 6 books and often I chose the same ones —  Blue Willow, by Doris Gates (the moving story of the daughter of migrant farm workers in California and a book I loved reading to my own children); the Bobbsey Twins series; a big book of Grimms fairy tales. So yes, I did read well for a girl of 6 and if I didn’t impress with my artistic skills, well, so be it.

Among the recipe clippings, a small yellowed clipping with Student Poets Honored, in bold. (It’s from a Canadian newspaper from 1972 so why the American spelling?) It reports that six young Victoria poets are among 100 winners of the National Student Poetry Contest. Their poems were chosen from over 50,000 entries and will appear, it says, in a publication by the Canadian Council of Teachers of English. Canadian poets Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Al Purdy were the judges. And I was one of those six. I didn’t enter the contest — I had an aversion then to contests and I still do, pretty much — but it turned out my grade 12 English teacher entered something I’d written for one of his classes. I remember him knocking on the door of our house in Royal Oak with a letter from the organization sponsoring the contest providing the names of the winners. My parents were puzzled. Their daughter? A poet? They didn’t praise us much, my brothers and me. But they must have kept an eye out for the announcement in the Victoria Daily Times (this was before it merged with the Colonist). It was clipped and kept with the recipes (“Add a tin of mushroom soup and heat until bubbling.”). And a a little package of photographs of me, taken that same year for my high-school graduation (fresh from my coup as a student poet), which I haven’t seen since then. How the years have flown.



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~ by theresakishkan on October 16, 2014.

4 Responses to “the education of a writer”

  1. Beautiful post, beautiful pic. All the best with the sorting.
  2. What a lovely young poet she was – and still is. And what a gift your parents left you, a box of your own past.

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