“little lanterns pierced with stars” (from Easthope, a work-in-progress)

easthope

They began walking to the pub at the very edge of the inlet on Saturday afternoons. A pint of beer, a glass of wine, a table by the window. Sometimes whales swam past. A humpback heading out to Agamemnon Channel or a pod of orcas chasing herring into Sechelt Inlet. Once Tessa and Marsh sat on the covered deck even though it was January, wearing mittens as they sipped their drinks, and watched orcas rush up to the tiny rocky island near the eastern shore and they realized the animals were dragging a seal down to tear apart in the water. That time, Marsh surprised Tessa by reciting a passage of poetry:

                             …how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.

     Marsh, what is that? — It’s Auden, from ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. I’ve always loved it for the way it tells us how things happen, really miraculous things, and hardly anyone notices. Like now. We just happened to look in the right direction to see whales throw themselves against rocks to capture a seal. And look around. We’re the only ones who did. When she looked, she saw one couple arguing, two twenty-somethings typing on their phones with their thumbs, and a group of guys by the pool table, laughing.

     After an hour or so of watching, they’d order supper.

     The tacos were really good—steelhead grilled and strewn with capers and crispy wonton; porkbelly with cabbage and chili pineapple salsa. There was thick chowder. Burgers you couldn’t eat without some of it falling down the front of your shirt. A musician from down the Coast played on those afternoons, into the evenings, and it was sweet to sit near the fire, listening to him sing old favourites and some of his own songs too. They learned to recognize the boats in the inlet, the ones used by people living off the grid in East Easthope, the prawn boats, the ones used by the people who owned islands or lodges, the crew boats, the fishing charters.

     And a tug would pass, hauling a barge of building materials, machines, tarped cargo that could be anything.

     –Want another?

     –No, I’m ok. But go ahead. I’m good to sit for awhile yet.

     Marsh walked across to the bar and waited while his glass was refilled. One of the young men who worked in the marina came in with an armload of logs and stacked them by the fireplace. Gulls swooped down to grab starfish exposed as the tide receded. So much was happening in the world. So much to be angry about, to fear, to obsess about during the daylight hours, scrolling through a news feed or listening to the news at 6. But here, on the edge of the peninsula, the mountains beyond soft with fog, you could forget that world and live deeply in this one. Two men struggled with a tote on the dock, trying to lift it onto the deck of a small sailboat. A woman sat on the deck of a converted wooden fishboat, reading – Tessa met her once in the store and learned she lived on the boat with her dog, following the route of Capi Blanchet and her kids in summers, a book Tessa loved. Susan said she’d tried a few ways of living and this was the one that suited her best. She cooked in a few camps when she needed money and she knew how to take her boat’s engine apart and put it back together. She was wearing bright red gumboots and her dog was stretched across her feet.

Ready to walk back?

After the first time, when they hadn’t realized how dark it would be on Maple Road and hadn’t brought a flashlight, stumbling down the Doriston Highway in utter blackness, they always remembered to take one. –Marsh, Sam told me his mum helped them pierce holes in a soup tin for the early walks to school on winter mornings. He said his sister had worked to make star shapes with a sharp nail and that hers was the best by far. Their mum saved candle stubs for their tins. Can you sort of see that? A group of kids walking a dark road swinging little lanterns pierced with stars?

deep water

maidenhair

At the Sechelt Library this week, I saw among the new books a novel called Holding Her Breath, by Eimear Ryan. The cover shows a swimmer in blue water. Ah, I thought: a book for me. Last night I read 82 pages and yes, it truly is a book for me. It’s set in Ireland. Beth, the young protagonist, is a competitive swimmer with a conflicted relationship with swimming, studying psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and an illustrious grandfather, whom she never knew because he died, a suicide, when her mother was still a child. The grandfather was a poet whose work continues to be taught in schools and universities. Beth is attracted to a postdoctoral research fellow specializing in the work of her grandfather. I love the section where she attends one of his lectures with her room-mate, listening to him discuss passages of her grandfather’s epic poem “Roslyn”.

“Isn’t Roslyn an imaginary place?” It’s a voice in the front row. The room animates with glances and affirming nods. This is what they were taught in secondary school, what they regurgitated in their exams.
“I don’t believe it is,” says Justin. “All Crowe’s poetry is rooted, specific. Even if he’s riffing on some mad star pattern, you can be sure he’s got a specific constellation in mind. When I was an undergrad, there was a rumour that the coordinates to Roslyn were encoded within the text itself. Now, I never did figure it out–but I bet you a hundred euro that Crowe is talking about a real place.”

When I was swimming in the lake a little earlier, I was thinking about the book. Last night I could have kept reading until I’d finished–the narrative is that compelling. But I wanted to savour it and so I put it aside. I suspect there will be a relationship between Beth and Justin and of course that will be problematic in many ways. There are boundaries — his, as an instructor; hers, as a possible access point for archival material thus far unavailable. (Justin has already visited Beth’s grandmother who guards her late husband’s materials fiercely.) I’m interested to see how Eimear Ryan navigates this fraught territory. I was reminded of my own university days, in the last century, when it was more common for certain territorial boundaries to be crossed. I’m not arguing that it was right. Times have changed in this respect, mostly for the better. I know there are always power imbalances but sometimes they’re less clear or quantifiable than we might imagine. From the time I was about 12, boys my own age were slightly nervous in my company. I was tall. I had what might be termed a “mature” figure. All through high school the boys I liked weren’t interested in me. I had a complicated relationship with my father, who loved me but who had no idea of how to parent a daughter with ideas of her own that were at odds with his. I had several high school teachers who helped me figure stuff out. How to think about the future, which in their opinion would be university. My parents had no idea how this worked but luckily I had good guides. One of them frequently gave me poetry books to read — Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath — and told me I could be a writer. (In later years, when I did publish books and gave poetry readings in Victoria, he was often in the front row, beaming.) And at university, I had some mentors who also provided guidance and support. In one or two cases, it could have gone further. I knew that. One man used to schedule our directed reading meetings in the faculty club and I suspect he wanted to give the impression that we were a number. We weren’t. But I had his support, his conviction that what I thought and wrote mattered deeply, and was I harmed by this slightly unbalanced situation? I don’t believe I was. I had affection for him, and respect, which continued long after I’d graduated. There was someone else who chose me as a sort of muse. Again, it was a relationship that appeared to be something that it wasn’t. I don’t regret it, exactly. I learned so much. I think he did too. And my house is filled with his paintings, some of them purchased by John and I, some of them brought as gifts to us and our children. I see his attentive eye in their composition, their colours, and if I’m the inspiration for some of them, what a gift to the aging woman I am now. These are the things I was thinking as I swam, provoked by reading Holding Her Breath last night, and maybe I’m entirely wrong, maybe this isn’t where the book is heading, but the combination of poetry and boundaries and swimming had me in the deep water of my own complicated past.

sage

rain and old roses

blanc double coubert

I’ve always loved the old roses, the noisettes, the mosses, the varieties named and anonymous, the ones you see smothering trellises in abandoned gardens. When I was a teenager in Royal Oak, then a rural neighbourhood of Victoria, with many of the pioneer families still living in their original homes, I’d ride my horse along quiet roads on early summer morning and stop now and then to pick a rose growing over its fence or into a field. I remember this one, Rosa rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, a pure white beauty with an intense old-rose scent. In fall, its hips were deep scarlet against the dark green leaves. I found a plant of it at the farm and garden centre in Gibsons in late winter and for now I have it by the front door. For now, because I want to see how it will do with limited sunlight. For years a ‘New Dawn’ thrived there, grown from a cutting given me by a neighbour of my parents, a woman who knew so much about Royal Oak. Her son rented a house across the road, a house she told me was the oldest house in Saanich. I don’t know if that’s true. I tried asking an archivist years ago and he was dismissive. That road didn’t exist before the 50s, he insisted. But an earlier road existed there, called (I think) Colquitz Avenue. The man across the road, Bill Mahon, was the son of an orchard-growing family. The oldest house was behind his house, also old. In those years there were a number of orchards on Wilkinson Road and I believe descendents of the Quick family still owned the house built by William Quick in 1911 and the fields filled with daffodils in spring, where cattle grazed, and sometimes sheep.

The ‘New Dawn” is less enthusiastic about its location these days but another one, grown from a cutting from Edith Iglauer’s ‘New Dawn’, has established itself happily along a trellis and beam above our patio. It shares the beam with wisteria. Edith had cuttings of our wisteria, I remember, and she’d phone when it bloomed. Edith was Angelica’s first visitor when we brought her home from the hospital; she came for tea, with the gift of a harlequin bear who played Brahms’ lullaby, and the package was tied with ribbon and a single bud of ‘New Dawn’ which was exactly the colour of our new daughter’s shoulders. See what a complicated thing is memory? It holds roads, names, colours, what it felt like at night to walk back to my house from the oldest house in Saanich after babysitting for the family who lived there, where roses grew on Beaver Lake Road and on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman where the Ferrie sisters still raised chickens and where they’d gone out to dances at the Royal Oak Community Hall, built by local men, including William Quick, in their gum boots, carrying their dancing shoes to change into for the evening. They were old when I knew them. The trail that they took to the hall wound up the hill and through the orchards. They gave my mum cuttings of several old roses but somehow the plants were forgotten when my parents moved to an apartment towards the end of their lives. But I remember them, vivid pink, with a heady fragrance. They might have been ‘Reine de Violette’ — their petals were densely clustered and they were heavy-headed in rain.

A complicated thing. When I close my eyes, I can feel the sunlight on my back as I ride down Beaver Lake Road, my horse’s feet light on the pavement. My hand on his damp neck, the reins soft with dubbin. I don’t yet if the ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ will stay in the Chinese tub by the front door but every time I pass it this season, I will stop for a moment, remembering. I am walking home late from the oldest house, legs wet from the tall grass, the apple trees in bloom, and the Ferrie sisters laughing as they return from the dance.

old house on mahon property

“The boats knocking against the dock”: from a work-in-progress

boats in mist

Think of the houses in their clearing on the inlet, goats behind fences of wire and branches, broken sticks, think of hens pecking in the gardens put to bed for winter, only the cabbages left, the tall stems of brussels sprouts. Smoke rising from each chimney, a dog barking. Think of the children racing across the ground from the schoolhouse, racing home to warm biscuits, chores, homework at a kitchen table lit by kerosene lamps. In winter, they walked to school on dark mornings with candles carefully placed in perforated soup cans. Think of the mothers in their kitchens, making soup. Think of the eggs in bowls on the sills. Think of fish strung on a line in a grey board smokehouse, nets laid out on the rocks. The boats knocking against the docks. The sound of birds. Think of the rain. Could you paint that, do you think? She was asking herself and she knew the answer had to be yes.

“Swimming is like prayer” (Adam Zagajewski)

yesterday

I’d spent the day lugging pots of soil in and out of the greenhouse. My arms were tired. The sun kept sliding behind clouds but when it was out, the day felt like a June day. So when John asked if I wanted to try the lake, I said, Why not? Two winters ago I tried to swim once a week in the lake, just to maintain my relationship with its water. I know that might sound strange but it’s living water. Swimming in it is like love, a relationship. During the darkest days of the pandemic, when we were isolated and John was recovering from a surgery gone sideways, I wanted the solace of lake water, even though I knew it would be cold. This winter I didn’t feel the same need for it. Three times a week I swam in the pool and although it’s not the same as lake swimming, it was enough. Enough for the cold days, the long weeks of wet days, the days after nights when I hardly slept. In February, when my Ottawa family was here, we went down to the lake for a quick swim. An immersion. The little boys played in the big pile of sand left on the shore and John and Manon talked at one of the picnic tables while Forrest and I plunged into the lake’s dreamy water. When we came out, we stood in sun that was almost warm.

summer in February

But sure, I said yesterday. Why not? A couple from Washington State was there with their son and the son and his mum had quick dips. John had a brief swim. I swam out beyond the rope you can see in the first photograph, and did a couple of laps, the ones I do in summer, my body so alive in the green water. And what is it? What is it about this living water that I am immediately home in it? A woman at the pool confessed that she is nervous about swimming in lakes or the ocean because of what she can’t see. But what you can’t see is the huge living body of water that holds you up, allows you its currents, its riffles, its history of trout, of kingfishers dipping their beaks, of mergansers and loons in the distance, of crayfish and sticklebacks, of freshwater clams, wild mint in the shallows, the shadows of swallows on the surface as they take insects in flight. Like a river or the ocean, it allows you a place in its living water, and now having entered again, my arms propelling me forward, hands meeting in front of me, then pushing out, a gesture of arrival, in sunlight and rain, I am home in my body within it.

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

                 –Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

there is sunlight this morning

roof 1

Sometimes I stop in the middle of a chore, in this case bringing up a planter of soil to transplant arugula thinnings into for the salad area around the corner from this photograph, and I see a moment that I need to soak up. A moment of calm, of beauty, two red chairs and a green one without its cushion, as though waiting for me to notice them, to sit for a while at the table and forget the troubled world. The troubled planet. A pot of scented geranium on the table, Prince of Orange, to replace the big one that didn’t overwinter well in the new greenhouse. Many roses just in bud.

roof 3

The corner I am calling Greece, for its tin of rosemary, its anemones, its Desert King fig (because the huge Brown Turkey growing up the side of the house produces figs that don’t reliably ripen here on the B.C. coast), its rose scented geraniums,

roof 4

and cistus dropping its bright petals. Mostly instead of sitting there I am planting squash, hunting slugs, preparing teepees for the beans (5 planted, one tray of seedlings just hardening off), filling big pots with soil for the peppers and eggplants in the greenhouse still. I am writing a novel. I am worrying about Ukraine. This morning photographs arrived of the family garden in my grandfather’s village where my newly-discovered relatives say, “We planted a garden in the spring, and now we hope to harvest in the fall. That’s how we live.” Their tomatoes are huge. Cherry trees and black currant bushes laden with fruit. Roses. And my cousin also said, “We have already finished the school year. The children completed it online because there is no bomb shelter in our school. There will be vacations soon.” My heart broke a little when I read that.

Sometimes I stop and sit in a red chair and just listen. Bees in the tomato flowers, the Madame Alfred Carriere roses, the tiny grape flowers. A robin ardently singing in the woods. Hummingbirds in the wisteria. The Fraser River is rising, rising. Russia is pulverizing whole cities. Along the highway below me, the Ministry of Transportation is still applying glyphosates to the orange hawkweed that the butterflies hover in. American families are posting photographs of their gun collections, vast arsenals set out on sundecks like mine, on kitchen floors, children proudly holding assault rifles and pistols. Today is the day I will tie up columbines, hoe the garlic and give the rows a drink of comfrey tea. There is sunlight this morning, the sound of loons, a brown and yellow garter snake sunning itself on the garden path.

roof 2

redux: green thoughts

Note: this was posted on June 2, 2018. This year the roses are still in bud (apart from Madame Alfred Carriere, who often blooms first, along with a few dog roses) and the honeysuckle I ponder over is not yet blooming but might well bury us in our beds, given its vigour.

abraham darby

One of my favourite garden books is Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s not a “how to” book but rather a series of brief essays on everything from artichokes to toads. The writing is beautifully crisp, the author opinionated, and there was so much I shared of her view of plants and their place in our lives. I loved her admission of smuggling special potatoes home from France. I don’t think I’ve ever returned from a trip without seeds or acorns or bits of this and that in my bag. I know some people highly disapprove but honestly how did you think potatoes got to North America? Or Europe? Or the roses your grandmother grew? Her tomatoes, the ones she insisted were the same ones her grandmother grew in Siberia, or Italy?

I’ve written before that some of my plants came from John’s mother (and from her mother, too, because John’s mum used to bring back cuttings and other plant materials from her annual trip to Suffolk). Our mint, our wisterias, and one of our honeysuckles, the lovely Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ (also known as late Dutch honeysuckle, and you can bet there’s a traveling story there…), some perennial geranium, Algerian iris, and so on. There was also a wonderful honeysuckle, L. japonica ‘Halliana’, that I loved. It was semi-evergreen here, with creamy blossoms turning yellow as they aged, and I swear they smelled of jasmine. We had it growing up the deck where we eat our summer meals and oh, after rain, the air was heaven. We had another plant of it too, growing up some lattice by our patio. And after ten or so years, both of those plants died. It was easy to root from cuttings. In fact, if I cut stems of it to have in jugs around the house, quite often they’d have roots by the time the flowers had finished. But I didn’t know the plants wouldn’t overwinter the winter they died so I hadn’t taken cuttings. I kept my eye out for new plants at the garden centres but never found one until the year before last. I planted it against one post of the pergola John built by the gate to the vegetable garden. The garden is fenced with 8-foot deer-proof mesh and I wanted something less forbidding as an entrance. Last year the honeysuckle bloomed but this year, oh man, it’s reaching for the stars.

honeysuckle

But there’s something about it…the flowers are tinged with pink. So I think it must have been mislabeled. I think it’s L. periclymenum, the common European woodbine, and I believe one of the parents of ‘Serontina’. It smells nice—but not like jasmine. I’m not a botanist (obviously) but I do pay attention and it seems to be that garden centres often sell plants that are not quite as advertised. A chestnut we bought 35 years ago is certainly not a chestnut. What is it? I don’t know. Mostly I don’t mind. I love the named and the unnamed. The David Austin rose ‘Abraham Darby’ for example: it’s beautiful, but is it any more beautiful than the old moss rose given me by Vi Tyner more than 30 years ago and which I thought I’d moved from its location beside ‘Abraham Darby’? (The moss roses are the ones to the right, still not quite open, but when they do, you can smell them ten feet away, both the flowers themselves and the resiny “moss” on the sepals. I have two—a deep pink one and a pale pink and while I understand there are some mosses that are repeat bloomers, mine flower only once, in early June. But I remember them all summer.) I did move the plant but some canes stayed in place, obviously.


two roses

Moss roses are centifolias (“hundred-petaled”), hybrids created in probably the 17th century with gallicas and damask roses as possible parents. It’s when I read about roses and their provenance that I truly regret my lack of scientific background. There’s a tangle of flower-types, origins, and species; and they go back 35 million years. Humans have a long relationship with them, using them for everything from medicine to perfume to food. My hero Pliny the Elder (as opinionated as Ms. Perenyi) said this of the rose: “It is employed also by itself for certain medicinal purposes, and is used in plasters and eye-salves for its penetrating qualities: it is used, also, to perfume the delicacies of our banquets, and is never attended with any noxious results.” And what would poets do without roses to praise? Listen to the 14th c. Persian poet, Hafiz:

How
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
Beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light…

I felt that encouragement this afternoon, walking among the plants, roses entwined, the misnamed honeysuckle cascading over its supports, the robins singing the long salmonberry song in the woods beyond the house, and the light, most of all the light of late spring. Sometimes the hours are too brief to hold everything you need them to carry, too quickly they pass, but then you stop to look at butterflies in the flowering sage and it was only yesterday you brought that small plant home from a friend’s garden. You add up the hours, the years, and it was decades ago. But every spring, the flowers, the persistence.

almost bedfellows

the eye’s geography

circles

In 2018, I fell on ice in Edmonton and unknowingly the process of retinal detachment began as a result of the impact of that fall. I was lucky. Edmonton has a very good Eye Institute at the Royal Alexandra and when I realized that the shimmering I was seeing at the edge of my vision wasn’t just the result of being with my family and feeling really happy (though sore, as a result of the fall, which also cracked my coccyx), I was examined by an ophthalmology resident who happened to be working after hours on a Sunday evening and who realized something very serious was happening with my right eye. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about the experience and its aftermath, because I had emergency laser surgery to repair a tear in my retina once we returned home the next day and then another surgery about 6 weeks later after a second tear was discovered in my left eye. It was a stressful period as I went back and forth to the ophthalmologist and he used special equipment to examine the inner tissues of my eyes. It was also profoundly interesting. In Edmonton and in Sechelt, I saw images of my inner eye that were so beautiful I cried.

What I remember about her examinations: there was a moment when she was shining a bright light into the back of my eye and I saw a red desert landscape with long fissures transcribing it. I think this might have been what’s called a Purkinje tree, the view of my own retinal blood vessels interpreted by my brain using a correlative image from its stored hoard. Which is why what I saw resembled a National Geographic photograph of a dry and cracked desert surface. I saw ochre earth and deep crevasses.

Yesterday I had my annual visit to my ophthalmologist. I had the usual vision test with the stinging drops and then a series of photographs, called optical coherence tomography, taken of my inner eyes. When I met with the ophthalmologist after a technician had done the test with light waves, he had the images on his computer. In a way it was like seeing the surface of Mars.

surface of mars

The colours were similar, though my eyes had some areas that appeared olive green, like distant marshes. Each eye had the scar from the laser surgery and those reminded me of buttons. After the surgeries, I made a quilt to try to puzzle through what had happened to me and what it meant. The opening essay in Blue Portugal is about that. I called the quilt (and the essay) “A Dark Path” and in a later essay, “Anatomy of a Button”,  I also explore the process of coming to terms with the experience:

Now what? I’d come through the experience with my sight intact but with scars at the backs of my eyes from the laser procedures. Quite often I’d lay my hands gently over my eyes and imagine a life without sight. There are worse things, I know, but I thought of everything I loved to look at—tulips, birds in flight, favourite landscapes, the sky (particularly the late February sky at 6:30 p.m. on a fine day when it’s the blue of Maxfield Parrish paintings, sometimes with Venus and a new moon hanging silver above the Douglas firs), the faces of those I love (an increasing number of people because of grandchildren), prairie fields from a great height, flying from the coast to Ottawa and back, freshly washed sheets fluttering on the clothesline in wind, the chartreuse flowers on bigleaf maples, and so many more things—and I’d realize how grateful I was that I wasn’t blind. Sometimes I’d hold my hands over my eyes for a bit longer because I was crying.

This time, looking at the ethereal geography of my eyes, I saw other relationships: the pinky-ochre of freshly sawn wood,

oak

the rich orbs of coho salmon eggs in the gravel of the creek near us after the fall spawning has taken place,

slc_eggs

and I was comforted. Or at least I was until the ophthalmologist  told me that I had a situation. Remember, he said, I showed you this last year? The macula tissue on the right eye has a pucker. (I did remember but I sort of put it out of my mind.) Here’s what we were seeing last year and here’s what I’m seeing today. And today it’s a little worse. We’ll keep an eye on it (of course). He told me what to be alert to changing vision because the condition can lead to vision loss and even holes in the macula. When he mentioned one of the things to take seriously if it happens, I wondered if that was what I’d experienced last Saturday, when the vision in my right eye went wonky for about 15 minutes. He thought not. He said if it happened and regular vision didn’t return, then I was to see him immediately. I quietly noted this.

Our eyes are such magnificent organs. And we take them for granted, or at least I do. Oh sure, I sometimes grumble when I’m downstairs, about to thread a needle, and I remember my reading glasses are on my bedside table. I remember the decades when I didn’t need glasses to thread a needle or to read or to do any kind of close work. But now? I am perhaps too alert to my eyes. Is that a thickening I feel in the right eye? A heaviness? When I was swimming my slow kilometer this morning, I was thinking of windows, mirrors, the surface of Mars. I was thinking of how we contain the most extraordinary landscapes right in our very bodies and mostly we will never know them. And now? And now?

When I take up the quilt, I hear the silk rustling. It is almost alive under its top of patches and panels. Rustling like bird wings, something I could hear with my eyes closed. If I close my eyes, I hear the silk, the sound of rain on the roof, the restless movement of the cat investigating the boxes behind my desk. I push my thread through the holes in the shell buttons, two eyes side by side, tender stabs with a sharp needle. For a moment a tiny button hangs on the thread as I fiddle with a tangled bit, trying to ease it out. By a thread. We hang by a thread in this world of wonders and terror. On a path of indigo cotton, black silk streaked with gold, squares of grey flannel, linen the colour of midnight, these silvery buttons will make a small light for anyone walking in uncertainty, in hope, scarred or whole, the whole dark length.

 

late

blue anemone

When I woke at 6:30, there was a robin singing in the wisteria over the patio beam. For years a pair nested on the beam, under the eaves by the porch door, but then the weasel discovered them and stole the eggs due to hatch. And now we have Winter, a cat who likes to crouch on the beam, surveying the known world. This morning the robin was singing the long salmonberry song, beautiful passages ringing out into the morning, and what was that, a tapping by the cucumber boxes? A pileated woodpecker excavating the stump of the old cedar, the one we had taken down more than a decade ago, the one with the pumpkin seed tucked into its inner core. I stood under the wisteria, blooming late this year, and it was every spring morning, birdsong and flowers and the paving stones cool under my bare feet. And now, looking out my study window, I see a doe browsing the long grass.

late wisteria

After a period away from my novel-in-progress, I’ve returned to it with a kind of strange and fierce excitement. There were things I needed to find out about, marine engines among them, and a morning in a shed filled with them, guided by a fisherman friend who’d grown up with Easthopes and Vivians, was a wonderful inspiration. There were water pumps, gears, huge hooks, a small bell from a trolling line. The scent of old paint and diesel, in a shed on the edge of the ocean, was a palimpsest, in a way. Remember this, I kept saying to myself, remember the rust, the cold metal, the flaking green paint.

morning deer

I went out on the deck and the deer stepped towards me. She is there still, looking at the house as though she expects the doors to open, music to drift out. In the night Winter woke me with the gift of a shrew and I took it outside, standing for a few moments in the dark to listen to whatever it was rustling in the woods right about where the deer is standing. It could have been a coyote or a bear, something making its nightly rounds. There were stars, a very bright planet that I think must have been Venus, and the astonishing quiet of the night, apart from the rustling that moved farther away.

This morning I’ll spend a few hours in the pages of my novel, where the old engines stand on their worn benches, and big wrenches hang on bent nails on a post. After a period away, I want to be there again, in Easthope, rain on the Doriston Highway, the scent of woodsmoke. In the night the rustling might have been an owl, a coyote, a bear. There was something I knew as I held my hands up to frame the little cluster of stars, something I need to find out.

Night is a cistern. Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads   
with the loud rustling of endless grief.   
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.   
And who will you become, who will you be   
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.
 
Night is a cistern. The last pairs dance at a country ball.   
High waves cry from the sea, the wind rocks pines.   
An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.   
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.   
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.
                       –Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

100 days of war

at bukovets

It was at Bukovets—a mountain village in the Carpathians—where I received the phone call that distant relatives had learned of my visit to my grandfather’s village a few days earlier and were driving to my hotel to meet me later that day. In Bukovets, there was a celebration, a huge meal, dancing, and then the school teacher, who spoke English, told us, You are Ukrainian. This is your country, your land. Come again, bring your children, your grandchildren. Although I was in Ukraine and although I had a Ukrainian grandfather, I didn’t—couldn’t—think of myself as Ukrainian. Could I? My daughter? My husband, born in Yorkshire? A man pounded the table and said, You are married to a Ukrainian woman so you are Ukrainian! He toasted us with the fiery horilka flavoured with mountain ginseng.

I’ve thought of that afternoon in sunlight, at a table high on a mountain slope, so often in the past 100 days. The beautiful music, food enough to feed an entire village, glasses replenished over and over again. I loved the cornmeal banosh, made with salo, salty cheese, and sour cream. Loved the cucumber salad with handsful of ferny dill strewn over the slices, the varenyky filled with cherries, sprinkled with sugar, and served with more of that rich sour cream. Women kept streaming out of a summer kitchen with platters and bowls, refilling our plates, pushing away our hands because why would anyone refused another helping of this food? Eat, eat! These are your people!

Today in the Guardian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy says that Russian forces are occupying about 20% of Ukraine’s territory. Children are being removed to Russia. New sanctions are announced and new weapons packages are being offered. Breaches of international law are discussed as though anyone at this point has the will or the ability to enforce these.

Here on the very edge of the Pacific, with a blue sky and birdsong, I am again wondering what to do. The bowl of dill in my greenhouse is green and ferny and tonight I’ll snip it over buttered noodles, try my hand at banosh. Looking out at the morning, I am reading poetry, which Auden told us makes nothing happen but survives in the valley of its making. I am thinking of the green valley below Bukovets, sheep with their long fleeces carrying wildflower seeds from one field to another.

Every hut in our beloved country is on the edge.
And to be honest, I’m on the edge, too.
I feel sorry for the ones at the center, but really I’m especially sorry for the ones in the camp towers, watching the frosty distance.
           —Boris Khersonsky, trans. by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk