This morning’s swim was the first 1.3 km. of January. When we returned from Ottawa at the end of 2019, I was sick. Then we went to Victoria. And when I went for swims last week, my chest was still congested. But this morning I swam back and forth in my lane by the window and I thought about writing. The other day John and I were driving somewhere and I mentioned that I’d been wondering if it was the time to write a book about building our house—which would also be a book about building a marriage and a family and, well, a life. In a way I’ve already written this but it’s in pieces, an essay here, another there, some poems from the days in the last century when I still wrote them. I’ve written letters, notes, kept track in the way women do by creating elaborate systems of memory. Oh, we built the deck the spring Forrest turned 2 because we had his birthday party there and that was also the time I planted the montana clematis against the posts of the deck. And the most vivid cluster of memories are the very first days of work on the building site when Forrest was 2 weeks old and we slept in a tent and bathed him in the single bowl we had as part of our batterie de cuisine: one old kettle, two saucepans, the bowl, some enameled mugs to drink our campfire coffee from as we worked on digging holes for the footings and erecting batter boards to hold the lines transcribing the house. There was a table made from logs and ship-lap, stained red, now collapsing under the weight of pots by the garden shed.
That sounds like something we could write together, said John. You could begin and I could respond; our memories will be different but that will make for an interesting project.
Like me, he’s written about building. In his book An Arbitrary Dictionary, there’s a suite of poems titled “baby shouts dao”; a poem about building the outhouse, “First Structure”, ends this way:
But out on the bluff
I’ve scraped the rock clean
for the sweep of March wind off
the lake, for the whole
valley and Valhalla, skies full
of cedar, mosquito-hawks’ whirr
of winds, old moons, falls
of snow and long westerly light,
rivulets, ripening mosses, the big
picture, a dwelling.
My own memory of the outhouse is an unexpected peace. How I picked up a copy of the Ontario Review with poems of mine published in it, in the days when I didn’t really imagine ever having time to write again (this was when I was pregnant with Brendan and we were working to have a house to move into by Christmas, 1982), and went to the outhouse to read the issue, door open, that long westerly light, the sense of being on the edge of the world, but at least I had poems in the Ontario Review. (I just checked to see if I have a copy of this issue and I don’t but looking online, I discovered it was Volume 12, Issue 1, and I think I have a letter of acceptance somewhere, signed by Ray Smith and Joyce Carol Oates.)
Swimming my slow laps this morning, I realized that we should write this book, the story of a house, a marriage, a family, constructed out of plywood, beams, concrete mixed in a red wheelbarrow (poets after all), cedar siding and shakes, and love.