“A kind of opposite is also true.”

constellations

Last night I stayed awake for longer than usual, wanting to finish the book I was reading: The Smallest Lights in the Universe, by Sara Seager. Sara is an astrophysicist at MIT and the book is a memoir of her professional life, her passion for exoplanets and the possibility (she would say probability, I think) of life forms in the vast universe. It’s also a memoir of her unexpected widowhood and how she moved ahead in her life and career with two small boys to care for. I found it an entrancing read and after I closed it last night, I thought for a long time about stars and motherhood and grief.

Two nights ago, I was returning to bed after visiting the bathroom and I paused to look out the window at the dark sky. (Although we have curtains, we seldom draw them shut at night.) Two nights ago there were so many stars that I stood for a time just taking in the silvery shimmer across the vault of sky over the Douglas firs just beyond my house, the beauty settling in my whole body like a promise. This is here, I thought, despite everything else. Despite the vaccination delays, the lists of those who have died, the willful denial of science by too many, the families in trouble, those who are lonely and isolated. Despite the horror it’s easy to succumb to when the new numbers are released each afternoon. This is here, this matters, this keeps me standing in the darkness looking out, I thought. I’d just begun The Smallest Lights in the Universe that evening so maybe I was particularly vulnerable to the beauty but I hope I’m never immune to it. In late November, 2018, I fell on ice and without knowing right away, I injured my retinas. In the days immediately following my accident, I had the sensation of seeing stars cascade past my face, a sensation as thrilling as it was frightening. Or to be honest, I wasn’t frightened until later, when I had emergency surgery to repair my eyes, and learned how serious the situation could have been if I hadn’t gone to the hospital when I did.

On a snowy evening in Edmonton, I sat in a chair high above the city glittering below, and saw images so beautiful that I know why people have sought them since they first ate datura or drank fermented honey and ingested mushrooms so toxic they could not have lived long afterwards. In dark caves they applied ochre, charcoal, and ground calcite to show light falling from the faces of horses and spiral patterns that led them to a dizzy apprehension of time and starlight. Following the spiral, they went to the heart of the mystery. It was never ours. It was always ours.

When I sew my spirals, I am finding my way into darkness, hopeful that I will find my way back. I am walking a path worn to the bare earth. It’s one way I know to hear myself think. I sew small shell buttons to the ends of each trail, a place-marker, shining as the light shone by my face in an Edmonton room where I lay in intense pain, but also in joy as I heard my grandchildren singing. Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, the other named Paul.
from “The Blue Etymologies”, in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, forthcoming.

It might sound dramatic to say I was changed by the experience but I was. I learned how precious my eyesight is—and isn’t it strange that it takes injury sometimes to allow us to understand what a gift it is to see?

There’s a very moving moment in Sara’s book when she is in New Mexico with her sons, trying out a new camera prototype, capable (she hopes) of finding the information she anticipates will further her work with exoplanets. It’s a moonless night on a desert with the Milky Way overhead.

We wanted to stay out there with the stars until the sun began its rise, washing them out one by one until even the brightest had disappeared.

We would know they were still up here. People about the sun and its reliability, how even on the darkest days we know it will come out again. A kind of opposite is also true. Even on the brightest days, beyond blue skies, there are countless stars shining over our heads.

I think of the shimmering stars within my eyes themselves, shining, shining, I remember looking at stars with my children decades ago, but in the place I still live, our attempts to find and name the constellations, I think of how much has been lost but how much still remains, lit by starlight when I least expected it.

redux: isolate

garlic

Note: I thought it was a year ago that we closed our doors to the world. But it was actually March 14th, 2020, that this post was written and I take that as the anniversary of our year in (mostly) isolation. The other day I began an essay titled “The Year” and am struck by how much happened and how little happened. I was kind of surprised to read the bit about how we’d swum that day and that our pool would remain open. March 14th was in fact the last day it was open until September when under strict protocols, swimmers were able to book a 45 minute swim, with a few others, and I am so grateful for the luxury of my thrice-weekly swim. In the blue water, by the big window, the world seems almost normal.

___________________

The house is quiet. For the past week I’ve listened to the news almost constantly, feeling a little pulse of anxiety or fear each time there were updates of Covid-19 cases, both on the west coast where I live or in any of the cities where loved ones live. Entire countries are locked down. I know the world has experienced pandemics in the past and I have no doubt they were just as frightening and serious. (On my desk, I have copies of death certificates for my relatives who died in 1918 in the Spanish flu epidemic…) Somehow our immediate access to news, to events as they unfold, makes us, or me at least, feel that this one is worse. It certainly occupies a huge space in the collective consciousness.

A younger friend called earlier today to ask if we needed him to buy groceries for us. He wasn’t sure how isolated we were, or wanted to be. I thanked him, his kindness very welcome, but said we were fine. I think we are. We live about 15 minutes from a village with two grocery stores and a pharmacy; there’s a health centre a few minutes from the village. 45 minutes away is a larger town, though just last week we laughed as we drove into it because we noticed a sign (a new one?) indicating “City Center”. The population is about 10,000. There’s a hospital, a couple of grocery stores, a book store, several pharmacies, a few places to eat, a library, and other small-town services. Many of these are along one street and I guess that was where you’d end up if you followed the sign to the City Center. We tend to go to the larger town once a week and our nearby village a couple of times a week. So far it’s seemed safe. No one we know has become sick. The local pool is still open and just this morning we swam, though we were the only ones there. This is not uncommon on a Saturday morning, though. When our family in Ottawa called today, they said that pools, libraries, and museums are all shut down or about to be; schools and daycares too. They said they were wishing they could come to B.C. for a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be nice? The little boys could come swimming with us and their dad could help with firewood.

What does it mean to isolate yourself, to enter into a state or place of isolation? The Oxford definitions are interesting.

(Mass noun) The process or fact of isolating or being isolated.
(As a modifier) Denoting a hospital or ward for patients with contagious or infectious diseases.
(Count noun) An instance of isolating something, especially a compound or microorganism.

Elsewhere, I found this etymological information about the word:

“standing detached from others of its kind,” 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island” (see isle (n.)). English at first used the French word (isole, also isole’d, c. 1750), then after isolate (v.) became an English word, isolated became its past participle.

Sometimes I tell people we live in an isolated area. We do. We have no immediate neighbours. We see no other houses from our house. We have 8.5 acres and we live on a cleared area on one part of that acreage, surrounded by deep woods. Mostly I don’t feel isolated. I’d say, rather, that I feel private. When I work in the garden in good weather, I have the windows and doors open (though screened) so that I can hear music coming from the house. It can be as loud as I want it to be. I like the pure darkness at night.

But to have to isolate ourselves? That’s another thing. We would be fine for quite a long period because I have a good larder—the freezer is full to the brim with berries, fish, meat, soups, broths, boxes of filo pastry, still a couple of pies from the fall, and the shelves in the porch that serves as our pantry are laden with jams, jellies, chutney, salsa, and various other preserves. We have lots of dried beans and rice and lentils. Big bags of flour and other grains. A good quantity of wine. In the garden earlier, I was looking to see what could be planted and where and I rescued a couple of red cabbages that were gnawed on by deer last fall when a bear broke the garden fence. I’d left the cabbages and forgot about them but they recovered quite nicely, though they’re misshapen. (Tomorrow I’ll cook them with apples and some red-wine vinegar.) There’s kale, tiny shoots of miners lettuce, perennial greens like chicory, buck’s horn plantain, dandelions. The chives are up. There’s parsley, other herbs, and the garlic is looking quite robust as it bursts forth from under its mulch of leaves. I planted lettuce and arugula in one of the boxes John built a few years ago. They’re like cold frames, I guess, but with old sliding windows on the south-facing sides, plexiglass panels to put on top when it’s cold, and chicken wire on the other three sides, to keep deer out. (The boxes aren’t in the fenced vegetable garden.) The peas I planted inside are nearly ready to go into their bed and tomato seedlings are coming along.

What I have, and what John has, is work to do. Our own writing, the garden, various repairs. We can go long periods without seeing people and it doesn’t feel strange. Unless it’s mandated. Unless we’re forced to stay home because nowhere is safe.

Tonight we’ll go out to Egmont to have supper at the Backeddy Pub because it’s still open and who knows what will happen next week. Sometimes we see whales from the window there. There’s a woodstove, like at home. I hope that everyone who is sick with this virus recovers, I hope that our health care systems withstand the stresses, I hope that those who are alone have enough to read, enough to eat, and that we all find ways to care for each other.

“A maiden once gifted with voice…” (Pausanias)

barnacle

What do you think of when you imagine the future? The time surely coming, when we can gather again, with loved ones, to eat together, and talk, without fear? What do you imagine?

On a bathroom shelf, a barnacle, with a holdfast of kelp. When I gathered it on one of the long beaches in Pacific Rim several years ago, I saw it as a sibyl. An open mouth (on the other side, you can see the openings of two barnacles), a mediator of liminal space, voicing the future. On that day, walking on miles of sand with my husband and daughter, the future was unknown but somehow safe. We were healthy, we were together, in a place where we’d once been with extended family members spreading the ashes of my parents. John and I had been coming to this part of the west coast for decades, together, and long before we met. I came alone and slept on the sand in my old down sleeping bag in maybe 1973 and woke to deer prints around me. I remember taking off all my clothes (I was 18) and tying strands of seaweed to my ankles, beaded with tiny shells. John came with an early girlfriend who was a surfer (from Santa Barbara) and they stayed on the beach in their Volkswagen van for a few days so that Dulcie could compete in a surfer event. Every year or two we’ve returned. Our children love it. And on the phone earlier this evening, Angelica hoped that we could all get together again there, maybe in the summer, but next year for sure. I think of us all, together and in smaller groups, walking, swimming, body-surfing, and sleeping to the sound of waves, and tonight I hope to dream of this. Not like last night when I dreamed of a house-fire and people screaming.

What I imagine is asking the barnacle shell on the cedar shelf in the bathroom to give me good news. The Cumaean Sibyl fended off Apollo who wanted to sleep with her (of course) by asking to live (in exchange for her virginity) for the number of years represented by the handful of sand she held. When I picked up my Cox Bay sibyl, a few grains of sand fell onto the shelf. Are those years or promises or both?

redux: the view from here

Note: This is from February 25, 2018. I was trying to rein in my nostalgia but oh, what about this morning, when the thought of as simple a trip as I described in this post is impossible, when the view from here is, well, the view from here: the trees to the south of my house.

the view from here

Yesterday we were having breakfast on Galiano Island with our excellent hosts, Louise Decario and Brian Mitchell. We stayed with them in 2016 when we were guests of the Galiano Island Literary Festival and so it was lovely to join them again after my workshop at the Festival on Friday. This is their view. Brian is a painter and he said he has made many works with the title, “The View From Here 1”, “The View From Here 2”, etc. Yup. I get that.

My husband says sometimes that I need to rein in my nostalgia, as though it was an unruly horse in need of training. But when you ride the ferries from one island to another, there is always the shadow of the ferry you took as a girl to these islands, in childhood with your family to Salt Spring for camping on St. Mary’s Lake, and later, as a young woman, to visit friends who were living in rustic cabins and trying to learn how to farm. Those farms are still there and the ferries, oh yes. I know that there are people who think we need bridges to link the islands but my response is always what it is when the same thing is said about access to the peninsula I live on, also serviced by ferries: “Where did you think you were coming to?”

ferries

Yesterday, in order to return to Tsawwassen from Galiano Island, we had to travel to Mayne Island first of all, and then wait for smaller ferries bringing passengers from Saturna Island and another, maybe Pender? Or Salt Spring? You could smoke rising from distant chimneys and yes, some sheep in fields, and cliffs with arbutus clinging to their edges.

We do get glimpses of that old coast and sometimes in the most unexpected places. On Thursday, enroute to Galiano Island, we spent the night in Steveston. We were told that snow geese were on the marsh at Garry Point so we drove out there to see. I only had my tablet camera and so of course everything is blurry but groups kept rising up, calling loudly, and it was wonderful. I remember driving out to this area 30 years ago to see fields white with foraging geese who’d arrived from Wrangell or Siberia.

snow geese

We walked by Scotch Pond for another old coast moment, a group of fish boats waiting out the cold. And there were echoes of both the cannery that was once here and the sheds where the Atagi family had their famous boatworks, the sound of red-winged blackbirds in the reeds.

on Scotch Pond

And this morning? I’m drinking a cup of Galiano Coffee Roasting Company’s delicious Raven Dark (a gift from the Festival, put into our swag bags moments after the beans had been roasted on Friday) and looking out on Fairfield Road. This was the neighbourhood I lived in as a child, my old school just across the road, and the cemetery where my mother used to send us to ride our bikes in the safety of its green lanes under the most beautiful trees. We’re going there later, for a walk. I know we’ll go to Eberts Street to look at our old house, the park where we used to play soft ball in the falling light on summer evenings, near the Dallas Road waterfront where we gathered bark on weekends for the woodheater in our kitchen. Oh, the scent of salt-infused Douglas fir bark, burning hot on a winter day. And the sound of gulls.

So this is me, trying to rein in that unruly nostalgia. Like a headstrong horse, it wants to run, it wants to take the bit in its mouth and race along the old streets, plunging into water, listening, always listening, sniffing the wind and the wood smoke, and quite honestly I’m at a loss as to what to do about it…

sentences about moonlight

moonlight

1.

When I put the cat out just before 5, I could smell moonlight, cold as a mountain stream.

2.

Coming downstairs, moonlight in the kitchen, on the copper pots, on the snowdrops in a tub by the doors to the deck.

3.

Would you have come?
Would you have come
Without scorning,
Had it been
Still morning?
Beloved, would you have come?
–Edward Thomas

4.

Moonlight has turned the leaves of the small olive tree silver as it leans to the window, hoping for spring.

5.

“The light reflects off old volcanoes, craters, and lava flows on the moon’s surface.”

“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

a knock at the door

Last night we were eating our Valentine dinner—little filet steaks, roasted asparagus, spinach salad—when I remembered something I’d read earlier that day, maybe in Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly, maybe somewhere online. What if there was a knock at the door and you found your children there, not as the adults they are, with their wide and busy lives, but as the children they were, available to you again for a couple of hours, an afternoon? What if. Maybe it was the candlelight, maybe the two glasses of excellent Côtes du Rhône (Gabriel Meffre’s Plan de Dieu), but I began to cry. It had snowed all day. The day before too. And it’s snowing as I write. Snowed in, on the edge of the world, and everything so far away. Most days I feel the privilege of my life. I have an excellent partner, we have wood in the woodshed, a durable roof over our heads, the pleasures of nice food and wine, our own work to do. So there’s nothing to cry about. But what I would have given last night to hear a knock at the door, to open it to see the faces of my children as they were 30 years ago, or longer, looking up in the porch light, wanting in. There was cake enough for all of us, the fire was warm, and what would we have said to one another as the snow swirled and settled on the boughs of the Douglas firs that have grown to great heights since we first looked out at them, a young family at our table.

the blues: a few sentences on a cold February morning

jay in winter

1.

When the jay appeared in the fir beyond the deck this morning, I realized it hadn’t been coming for breakfast for weeks, hadn’t been standing on the post to look in, wondering when the seeds would appear, and I realized I’d been wrapped in my own winter blues, too distracted to notice its absence.

2.

I am not yet accustomed to a phone ringing (or playing “Brown-eyed Girl” because that’s the ringtone I set and I don’t know how to change it) as I sit in the car, waiting, so it took me a few minutes to realize how to see who I’d missed and how to return the video call, which was my grandson Henry, who is 4, wanting to talk about Jupiter and sharks and counting to a hundred, not a big number he insisted, and then confided that most kids skip the 30s but he doesn’t, and when his face disappeared from the tiny screen, I was waiting, waiting, under a blue sky, thinking about planets and how long it’s been since I saw my family.

3.

Every day I sit by the fire with the pages of Blue Portugal*, scribbling and scoring out passages, moving others so that they make more sense, pausing in my reading to remember things I’d written about — driving to Lillooet on a cold November morning, seeing stars quite literally after retinal damage when I fell on ice 3 years ago, looking out a train window in the night as we travelled from Kyiv to Chernivtsi in search of my grandfather’s village and realizing that Orion was right over our train carriage, the same Orion who hung over our house thousands of miles away, walking along the Red Deer River and seeing a little creek enter it, not knowing that I was in the very place where my grandmother lived with her first husband a hundred years ago, in another lifetime that led to my own.

4.

When I woke this morning at 5:30, it wasn’t Jupiter I saw but more likely Mars, and so many stars in a sky the colour of indigo velvet, while John slept, and the cat slept, his position an ampersand between us on these cold February mornings.

5.

The blue hour, the one we wait for late February when the sun slips down below the horizon and the sky deepens to the saturated indigo of a Maxfield Parrish landscape, a platter of truite au bleu on the long table, a glass of Modry Portugal poured and waiting on the counter. An hour to be accompanied by the music of Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell. Stitch, stitch the dyed linen into rough quilts, spread the Indian cloth on the grass for the evening picnic, your hands blue with cold.
–from “The Blue Etymologies”, part of Blue Portugal

*Blue Portugal and Other Essays will be published by the University of Alberta Press as part of their Wayfarer Series in 2022.

winter stories

bowl

My husband’s parents were married in February, 1946. One story my mother-in-law told concerned a gift, a large Mason ironstone bowl. As they travelled by train on their honeymoon, they were met at one stop by a cousin who presented them with the bowl. There was ambivalence expressed about this gift, a whiff of resentment about the cousin, who had done something to acquire an inheritance. Had been in the right place at the right time, had perhaps been a bit sneaky. The bowl was contrition. And maybe not quite perfect. A flower in the design was not filled with with colour. Everything about this story was vague, like the flower. What colour was it meant to be? Would anyone ever know? Was the bowl a “second” and perhaps not worth much?

Everyone involved in that story is long dead. But before she died, John’s mother gave him the bowl. He’d always liked it. And maybe she was still ambivalent about it more than half a century later.

Every now and then John and I make notes about things we have in our house, notes towards a document that will detail the stories associated with objects our children may one day want for their own. The Sheffield plate coffee pot, also a wedding gift to John’s parents, and very old (18th century, I think). The sterling flatware, just 4 place settings, collected by my mother before her own marriage, and never used by her and my father. Paintings, prints, pottery vessels, table linens, a crib quilt made by my grandmother out of scraps of what look like old housedresses and pajamas. A camphor chest brought back from southeast Asia by my father in the early 1960s as a gift for my mother; when she opened on board his ship, there was a bottle of My Sin inside. John wrote about the train platform and the gift of the bowl by the perhaps disreputable cousin of his mother. But now there’s more to the story and he’ll have to add new details.

In working on some family history, our older son discovered a hoard of information about an aunt of John’s mother, a suffragette and (as described in a newspaper article) “an excellent vegetarian cook”. In looking at her story, Forrest was able to piece together a series of sad and revealing events. A publican whose wife drank laudanum in what was described as “temporary insanity” and who had expressed concern with her alcohol consumption as well as her obsessive anxiety about hydrophobia as a result of being bitten by a cat, Their own daughter doing much the same thing (after losing her husband), drinking chlorodyne (a mixture of laudanum, cannabis, and chloroform), leaving her child, an orphan, to be raised by his suffragette aunt. Who named him as beneficiary when she died. And this was the man on the train platform, offering the gift of the bowl. Maybe not so underhanded after all? What he had done was to live in his grandfather’s house, with his aunt, after the deaths of his parents, in the shadow of his own grandmother’s death, and (it seems) to inherit the house and perhaps its contents from his aunt, who’d clearly loved him. Maybe the bowl had been a family treasure that he wanted to pass on to a cousin who had just married, to share something of the household, something of value. Because the bowl is certainly that. Doing some research, John and Forrest have discovered it is probably more than 150 years old, in good condition. Though if you study the photograph, you’ll see the flower in the middle, left blank. An online search shows other objects in this pattern and that flower is pink and blue. I’ve only learned that this morning. So there’s always more to a story and what you don’t know, you can fill in for yourself.

at 2:15 a.m., the night cold and starry, the coyotes were mating…

…just beyond our bedroom window. Every winter, reliable as clockwork, we hear them in the woods at the edge of our property. They den somewhere south of our house. Every now and then I see one amble by my window. Last winter we watched a pair down in the old orchard, one of them heading up the bank to where our cat was also watching them, from the deck. When it saw us, it disappeared into the bush.

On spring evenings we hear them, their families new, and in summers we hear them, singing in moonlight. In fall, we hear one, maybe. I imagine it’s the mother, wondering how the time has passed so quickly that the young have all left the den. One summer a pup came several mornings in a row, pausing to pull down salal branches so it could eat ripe berries with the most delicate care.

morning-visitor

The ones last night? Where do they fit in the long sequence of generations? Are their songs specific to place? I wrote about them in the title essay of Euclid’s Orchard and I am writing the same things now.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad,
dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed, but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.
–from “Euclid’s Orchard”