“…stories belong on maps too…”

under the bridge

This morning I’m working on the (final) edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out from Palimpsest Press in spring. It’s about several things, maybe even many, but at its heart is a young woman searching for the terroir of books she has loved: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval; Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (and the rumour of Deep Hollow Creek, because my novella is set in the 1970s and DHC wasn’t published until 1992, though it was written before The Double Hook…). The young woman, who is Izzy, drives up the Fraser Canyon and over to Lac LeJeune and all the way to Dog Creek, and she marks a map—this is before gps, before Google—with textual notes. She is making a feminine (even feminist) cartography, though she wouldn’t have phrased it that way.

By association, stories belong on maps too, even the ones that were too quiet to be heard or else refuted the popular narratives. Stories have their own geography and need a scale bar that allows them to express location, relationships, emotions, weather effects on riverbanks, and the erosion of delicate landforms. Or they have their own gender and no one understands the legend.

When I was writing this novella, I didn’t think it would be published. Yet it will be, and I am so grateful. But more than that, I’m grateful to the women who wrote books that helped me to realize that our landscape has been lovingly commemorated by women who aren’t exactly household names in the great literary canon. I had the opportunity this time last year to remember one of them as part of CBC Radio’s The Backlist and with The Weight of the Heart, I have another opportunity to showcase their books.

The other week, on a little road trip, John and I stopped at Lytton to look at the Thompson River, greeny blue and somehow lithe, entering the brown Fraser River. The rabbitbrush had lost its yellow and gone to seed, sumac along the riverbank was brilliant red, and you could hear the thin voices of ospreys fishing. Always always always.

think of this…

the book table

…as a Christmas book table, at a craft faire, maybe, when you are looking for gift ideas. You stop, you look at the titles, and you think, Yes, why don’t I give books this year? Here at High Ground, we have some extra copies of some of our books and are offering them for sale, any 3 for $45. (Just the ones pictured; we don’t have many copies of other titles.) Postage will be included for mailing in Canada but elsewhere, we’ll mail them at cost. You can find more information about my titles by visiting my book page. John’s two books are poetry collections: crawlspace was published in 2011 and was the winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize; and Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) was published in 2015. Oh, and if you’re interested, ask me about Patrin. I might have a few copies of that too.

redux: “on a shore wind I drifted out”

Note: I find the world too much these days. I find what I’ve done in it, for it, insufficient. I’m burrowed away in my kitchen, quilting, and waiting for bread dough to rise. But a few minutes ago, I saw this little sculpture from Nunavut and remembered I’d written about it. In a similar mood, as it turns out. On this same day, 3 years ago.


After a run of stormy days, I see blue sky to the south, and pink light filtering through the Douglas firs to the east of the house. And just now, doing something else, I saw this little sculpture, a gift from someone long dead. It’s from Nunavut, created out of caribou antler, and it’s on a low table by a window. How many times I pass it in a day, never looking. But this morning I looked and saw the perseverance, the hard work, and (yes) the joy of this hunter in wild seas.

antler carving.jpg

So today I will remember this moment, seeing the small kayak, the whales, no matter what else is going on in the world — and that election just south of us does feel like the world, for the way it fills the newspapers, the airwaves, our conversations, our every waking moment, whether we want it to or not.

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.

My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.
To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

–Song from the Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo), The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, compiled by Knud Rasmussen

“Good evening, stranger…”

kite, in progress

Last night we began to read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. We’ve been meaning to read together for awhile now, after last winter’s experience of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the odes of John Keats. I was sort of pushing for the Odyssey but John was resistant. Maybe nothing quite so classical this time around, he suggested. But I brought out this beautiful edition, purchased (in part) with my gift certificate from the Galiano Island Literary Festival two years ago, and we simply began. It reads so well. “Tell me about a complicated man.” What an opening. Yes, tell me. I’m going to resist the urge to compare. My beloved Fitzgerald translation lives on my desk, coming apart at the spine, fringed with stickie notes, a source of both solace and inspiration for at least 45 years. I paid $2.04 for it in the University of Victoria bookstore in the fall of 1973. I’ve read other translations but this one has always felt like Homer to me. I have to say that I do love the cadences of this Wilson version, though, and look forward to tonight.

With that, she tied her sandals on her feet,
the marvelous golden sandals that she wears
to travel sea and land, as fast as wind.

I might try a little exercise as we go along, using my Loeb Odyssey and my battered Goodwin Greek Grammar. I know there are more modern ways to immerse yourself in languages but I like the slow work of an old grammar and scraps of paper.

                                                            “Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”

Imagine if we could still open a door to a stranger, a woman in beautiful sandals, and offer her a meal, not knowing that she is a goddess. Imagine.

redux: the decades

Note: This week I need to come up with an image to cut into lino for this year’s High Ground Christmas card. I’m looking around and trying to see what might make a journey from actual thing to image, that won’t be too difficult for my limited skills with the tools. Last year it was this wren; unfortunately its beak became slightly truncated when the lino broke away at the very tip. This year? Who knows? A house (I did one many years ago but maybe it’s time to revisit?), a leaf, an elk posing as a reindeer?



I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.

I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.

Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.

How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.

Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,

So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start

redux: quotidian

Note: this was posted in late November last year but this morning it’s all true again as I get ready to go for my slow swim…


This is a celebration of the quotidian, the daily. This is for when I think everything is happening in other places. That real writers are those out in the world, on stages, represented by high-powered agents, writing, writing, in castle retreats or on Greek islands or in the mountains in their own snowy studio, returning only for meals at a table of other writers. This is a day when the wood box was filled, two loads of laundry done, a table cleared and laid for dinner tonight, when sourdough bread and a pie was baked (well, it was one frozen, unbaked, in September when the Merton Beauties sat on the counter),

apple pie

when biscuits were baked (Stilton and walnut) after the pie, in a cooler oven, to have with glasses of wine this evening,

stilton and walnut

when I folded laundry and thought about the book I’m writing, a collection of essays called Blue Portugal, and how when I was swimming my slow kilometer yesterday I realized how I could structure the book, mostly long essays about family history, fish libraries, and the nature of memory but what about using smaller “blueprints” based on some actual blueprints I’ve been studying and parsing, what about investigations into the process of modrotisk, the Czech blueprint I’m using as a back for a small quilted piece using a forgotten piece of indigo fabric tied with beach stones, what about tracing the evolution of blue cloth, what about including some of the Assyrian cuneiform tablet stuff detailing the agency of women weavers and merchants in the 19th century BC when their husbands carried their textiles to Anatolia by donkey caravan, what about, what about…You can see how the daily might add up to be something worth writing, and maybe reading.

in progress


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.