“I know a river”

Ours is the middle balcony

I’ve been working on revisions of my essay collection, Blue Portugal, due out from the University of Alberta Press next year. It’s an interesting process, to revisit work and to see both its strengths and its weaknesses. I’m glad to have the opportunity to correct some of my careless constructions, to streamline some of my meandering thinking. But mostly? I’m grateful to spend time in the ecosystem of these essays again. They are accumulations of places, histories, explorations, and in them I find a more expansive version of myself. A woman standing in a gallery in the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, reading about geographical loneliness. Or in Ukraine, watching a woman wash a recently completed lizhnyk in the river tumbling below her house. Or in Fort Simpson, walking near the MacKenzie River while pick-up trucks circled, their drivers waiting for the ice to break up on the river.

I was surprised to find the pandemic in the pages of my essays too. Or not surprised, but I’d thought I was writing about the Spanish flu epidemic and I was, but there’s also a section about our newly-enforced state of isolation:

The first time someone knocked on our door since the pandemic began, I felt my heart race. I couldn’t move. You’ll have to go, I told my husband. He did, and it was a neighbour, bringing some of our mail that had ended up in his box. He put it on the post at the top of the stairs so that no one had to come out. Hearing his voice, I came to say hello through the screen door. He stood well back. After he left, I opened the door. For several weeks no one but us had stood on the other side, looking in; or on our deck, looking out at the world. My company had been my husband, and the dead who stood around me at night.


This morning is misty and there are still patches of snow on the ground. I have some masks to wash, some seeds to start, and in a little while we will head out for our swim. We’re lucky to be able to continue swimming because I know so many pools are closed. I do my laps in blue water by a window looking out at maples. While I swim, I think. I am thinking today about Portugal, how warm it was, how we went with an archaeologist in Evora to see some neolithic sites older (by 7000 years) than Stonehenge, observatories of careful attention. I remember lizards on the capstones of the passage graves and black pigs grazing under oaks as they had in the days of Odysseus. I remember the flat we rented in Lisbon, above a tiny square where a man and his wife ran a little bar with two tables on the cobbles and where we sat with a cool drink on the day of our arrival while almond trees bloomed against the wall. We’d traveled for a couple of hours to get there, crossing the Tagus River. Apart from our swims and one grocery shop a week, we are staying home. It could be worse. And luckily I have this work to do in which places I’ve loved are mine again to walk through.

I know a river
Where the lights of the city
are the unique stars
laid over its waters
from a song by Fado singer Camané

2 thoughts on ““I know a river””

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