a morning divination

ivankivtsi church

I was sitting by the fire, watching the honeysuckle vine move in the wind. I was waiting for the Steller’s jays to arrive for their breakfast. I was drinking dark coffee in the blue mug with white bears. And thinking, thinking, in a dreamy way, about the book I am trying to write. I opened A Writer’s Diary to see what Virginia Woolf was thinking in November, 1924 (for that was where the book opened):

I must make some notes of work; for now I must buckle to. The question is how to get the two books done. I am going to skate rapidly over Mrs. D., but it will take time. No: I cannot say anything much to the point, for what I must do is to experiment next week; how much revision is needed, and how much time it takes. I am very set on getting my essays out before my novel. Yesterday I had tea in Mary’s room and saw the red lighted tugs go past and heard the swish of the river: Mary in black with lotus leaves round her neck. If one could be friendly with women, what a pleasure—the relationship so secret and private compared with relations with men. Why not write about it? Truthfully? As I think, the diary writing has greatly helped my style; loosened the ligatures.

I am in something of the same position. I have a collection of essays out in the world, seeking a publisher. I have a novella loosely based on Mrs. Dalloway. And I’ve made tentative marks on a page to begin something new, about two women, their relationship a surprise to them both, and involving two countries, Canada and Ukraine, a shared grandfather (or great-grandfather for one of them), and the stories told by rushnyk, the ritual cloths that preserve various kinds of history and act as a mediary between the living and the dead.

The building in the photograph is the old church in my grandfather’s village in Bukovyna. When I entered it last September, I felt the presence of the ones who’d worshipped there, who’d been baptized, married, mourned, my own family members among them. The priest who opened the door was the same priest who announced in the new church that I’d come to the village looking for Kishkans and some of them were present and they found me later that day. Our stories entwine, as the red lines of thread extend from a knot to become a hearth, a field, a tree of life hung with apples, and flowers blooming as beautifully as they bloomed in the tall grass in the cemetery near the church.

winter gifts at High Ground

I know Christmas is more than a month away but if you’re thinking about gifts, we can make it simpler for you by offering some of our own books, limited edition chapbooks, and broadsheets printed on our late 19th c. Chandler & Price platen press for sale during the season.

mud bottom

For example, John’s Mud Bottom (details here) is $35. If you buy a set of the Companions Series Broadsheets (also here), a folio of 12 letter press broadsheets including poems by Gillian Wigmore, Russell Thornton, and Maleea Acker written in reponse to other poems printed enface, priced at $150, then we will include a copy of Mud Bottom for free with your order.

winter books

For a selection of our books, including my Euclid’s Orchard, Winter Wren, The Age of Water Lilies, Inishbream, Patrin, A Man in a Distant Field, and Red Laredo Boots, and John’s crawlspace (winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Forecast (Selected Early Poems: 1970-1990), and This Was the River. the deal is this: buy one at cover price and receive a second book of your choice for 50% off. We’ll happily inscribe the books. Postage will be charged at cost.

If there are other books you’re interested in or you see something on the High Ground page (including chapbooks, individual broadsheets, including Michael Ondaatje’s “Breeze”), please ask us. And if you think that background scarf on which the books recline is as ravishing as I think it is, visit Caroline Jonas’s website. (I recently ordered the scarf as an early Christmas gift from my husband because he won’t be able to shop this year!)

an Irish journal

irish journal

A dear friend in Toronto sent John some books and they arrived yesterday. One of them is Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. I picked it up this morning and opened to “Cornwall”:

I was renting, at the time, a house in the country.
Fields and mountains had replaced tall buildings.
Fields, cows, sunsets over the damp meadow.
Night and day distinguished by rotating birdcalls,
the busy murmurs and rustlings merged into
something akin to silence.

I sat. I walked about. When night came,
I went indoors. I cooked modest dinners for myself
by the light of candles.
Evenings, when I could, I wrote in my journal.

Maybe this was the poem that led to me opening a drawer where I keep some of my old journals from times in my life when I’ve kept them. The 8 months I spent in Europe, mostly on Crete, but with two months in London. The year in the west of Ireland on a tiny island off the Connemara coast. I’ve written of the time in Ireland in a novella, Inishbream, and reading my journal reminds me of what was left out. Nettles. Endless nettles (and mussels) because I was so poor I could hardly afford to buy food. But the rhythm of the days and nights was (to me) memorable. Yes, I cooked on dark evenings by candlelight because there was no electricity and the single gas lamp in my cottage was unreliable. There were cows, a damp meadow where a donkey also lived, and he would hang his head over the stone wall, watching for me to come out to pet him. The birdcalls took time to learn. There were corncrakes who rasped in the tall grass, wagtails, rooks, once a snow bunting, gannets, osprey, an owl call from time to time (and maybe it was a short-eared owl because others saw them; I only heard something in my eaves, rustling and creaking), and everything was modulated by the sound of the sea just below my bedroom window.

One day I think I might transcribe my journal. There’s something in it that reminds me of a life lived simply and quietly, with loneliness, and with joy. Occasionally I tried to make little sketches but my drawing skills were so limited (still are!) that I quickly realized it would be better to sketch with words, with phrases, descriptions, and a log of the books I was reading. Once I set up a board with canvas clipped to it and used the paints given me by a friend to see if I might capture my house. I was standing by the stone fence haunted by that donkey and my neighbour Peter came up to see what I was doing. He didn’t think much of the results. I gave the painting to my father for his birthday and he framed it. I have it now, hung in the bathroom, and so I see it often, the green rustling elephant ears planted in front, and the hills on the mainland visible. Peter was right and he was wrong. It isn’t the house as it was but it’s as I remember it, if that doesn’t sound paradoxical.

I shut my book.
It was all behind me, all in the past.

Ahead, as I have said, was silence.

There was never silence on the island. Always the ocean, the donkeys, the cows groaning on the lane as they were herded from one tiny field to another, a fiddle when the wind was right, a tin whistle quavering across the rocks, and the owls in the night.

my cottage

painstaking

red

”What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”)

This morning a friend met me in the parking lot after my swim. She and her husband are moving to a smaller home on Vancouver Island and she asked if she could bring me a few books about Japanese textiles. (She lived in Japan for a time and visited many textile studios, accumulating some beautiful pieces.) She brought the books, yes, and also some gorgeous gifts—pillow covers, a table runner, a long length of something so incredibly fine that I only want to sit with it in my lap, and two garments: a man’s silk kimono, shibori-dyed, in a pattern I think might be rasen; and a boy’s kimono, traditionally given as a gift when a child turns 7. She thought my grandsons might like to wear it when they visit and oh, I can imagine each of those 3 wild boys in the beautiful linen robe decorated with fish. I think I’ll hang it in the room my grandchildren sleep in, with the Inuit print of Sedna and the mobile of birds.

The work of these textiles reminds me of the word painstaking. Hours and hours and hours of preparation. For the red jacket, thread wrapped around a tool or a small bean or pebble to resist the dye. I’ve done a little of this but nothing, oh nothing so intricate and subtle as the kimono my friend gave me. Painstaking, the taking of pains, the application of careful and attentive effort towards the accomplishment of something (from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). I thought of painstaking because of the work being done in my house as my husband struggles to regain his lost mobility, the years of pain as he waited for hip surgery, and now the daily effort to encourage a sleeping foot to awake. Will it wake? There’s a 50% chance of recovery within a 2 year period if the nerve compressed during surgery is able to regenerate. Painstaking, because he goes out on the deck to walk back and forth to urge his foot to remember its old work, in tandem with the other foot, forward, forward, one after the other. Painstaking, as he lies on the bed and presses his toes, the ones without feeling, against my hand; raises each leg; makes a bridge of his body.

My dictionary tells me that painstaking is a noun and an adjective, though the former is rare. Rare work is being done in my house, with patience and care. One day we will spread out the table runner from Japan, set our blue willow plates around it, fill glasses for ourselves and others, and celebrate what we hope will be the result of the painstaking effort of waking a sleeping foot.

blue

when fuchsia is a mnemonic

fuschia

I was outside sweeping the deck so John could safely walk back and forth with his walker when I looked up to see the basket of fuchsia blooming so wildly, as though it hadn’t snowed this morning. I took the basket around to the woodshed and hung it under cover until I can figure out where to put it for the winter. My sunroom is filled to the brim with plants, the hooks supporting four baskets of epiphyllums. (The other morning when I was bringing up John’s breakfast and straightening the bed, he said, What can I ever do to thank you for these days? And I said one word: greenhouse….Done, he replied. So that will be a late winter project.)

Anyway, the fuchsias. I love to watch the hummingbirds deep in their throats all summer, love to water them on hot mornings and see tree frogs leaping from the basket. But today I was taken back, back, back to the west of Ireland and the walk from Eyrephort strand up to the Sky Road.  They were F. magellanica, the perennial or hedging fuchsias, and part of the road was a tunnel of them, right below the house where Peter O’Toole lived. When I came in from sweeping, I opened my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees to read the passage about that road again, taken back again in the reading more than 40 years (because Mnemonic was published in 2011 so I have to adjust the time in my mind):

A section of Irish hedgerow

I’d cross over from Inishturbot by curragh to Eyrephort Strand and then walk up to the Sky Road where I might get a ride to Clifden if I was lucky. If not, I walked the eleven kilometres. Sometimes I borrowed a bike from the farmer whose cows grazed in the fields that ended at the sea. Either way, the road that led up to the Sky Road was narrow, a leafy tunnel through fuchsia, hawthorn, branches of black sloes hanging heavy from their stems, brambles, and gorse blooming in almost every month. I never knew all the birds that sang, or didn’t, in the dense lattice of twigs and greenery but sometimes I’d see a nest with a blue tit hovering, or I’d hear the flute notes of a blackbird. Spiders, butterflies, bees humming in the primroses of early summer, and once I glimpsed a badger emerging from a gap where the hedge met a stone wall. Cattle beyond the hedgerow grazed in sour fields while soft rain slicked their hides.

     There weren’t many large trees. Plantings of pines and yew near the farmyard of the bachelor who gave me rides a few times and was handsome as sin but also rumoured to be dangerous. A few alders in the damp area where a seasonal stream came off the hills, the stunted willows by my bedroom window. I missed the dense forests of my native British Columbia raincoast during that year, though now I sometimes dream of walking up through that tunnel, fresh in spring or dust-worn in August, listening for birds, plucking a stem of fuchsia to tuck into my hat. Thirty-five years have passed, and still I remember white campion, dead-nettle, meadowsweet, and bryony lacing up into the sallies, and how I once dug up a small primrose to take back to my cottage where it bloomed in a blue teacup on the windowsill.

quotidian lines: is it too late?

rushnyk

1.

I meant to plant the garlic earlier. It’s usually in the ground and mulched with maple leaves by this point in the fall. But this year? Time raced, as it sometimes does, and I held on for dear life as we prepared for John’s surgery in October, clearing paths through the house so he would be able to use a walker from one room to the next. Instead of digging over the garlic bed, I was reading about wound care, making sure we had everything we needed for the months to come. But the other day there was a clear space in the day and I dug the bed. I went out in the rain an hour ago to dig the furrows and plant the cloves of Metechi (my favourite, originally from the Republic of Georgia or maybe Kazakhstan, though ours came from a farmers’ market in Lytton about 5 years ago), Music (from Peter Haas), and Red Russian, strewing the furrows first with kelp meal and bone meal, and tucking the cloves in with fish compost from Salish Soils.  Is it too late? I don’t think so. The fall has been quite mild, though on Monday when I drove out for a swim, there was a dusting of new snow on the mountain and few delicate flakes falling from the sky at the top of the Sakinaw hill.

2.

Yesterday we went to Sechelt for a medical appointment and physiotherapy for John. While I was waiting for him, my hands were exploring the texture of the poppies on my shirt, a vyshyvanka I bought in Kosiv, in Western Ukraine, last fall. This embroidery is hand-done. I bought two shirts on that trip, one with geometric embroidery (machine-done), and this one, with brilliant red poppies strewn across the chest and sleeves. As my fingers traced the shape of one flower, I felt a jolt, a small electric volta, like the moment in the sonnet when everything shifts, when the argument or thesis presented in the first part resolves itself in the second. It is the hinge, the fulcrum. Could the shirt with poppies be my own fulcrum?

3.

I’ve begun a new extended piece of writing, fiction (I think), and I’ve been wondering about how to move between what I know and what I need to find out. I need a device, a strand to follow, to allow me to make sense of material, some of which is historical, some contemporary. (I think of the time brackets, or volta brackets, in music, when a passage is played two or more times, but with different endings.) I need a strand, a length of red embroidery thread to lead me into the early 20th century in Western Ukraine and back again. In my trunk of textiles, I have 4 lengths of rushnyk, the ritual cloths you see in Orthodox churches, wrapped around bread, given at weddings; they are coded, richly symbolic. When distant relatives came to our Carpathian hotel last fall to meet me, they brought champagne and a beautiful rushnyk, chocolate and photographs. Is it too late to learn how to read these cloths, how to run my hands along the borders of stars and berries, sheaves of wheat? One source implies the cloths can be a link between the living and the dead, those who stayed and those who left. Is it too late?

the morning tray

morning tray

While John is recuperating from his recent surgery, I’ve been bringing his breakfast upstairs so he can enjoy it in bed. (This morning it was yoghurt with honey, granola, and banana; two slices of homemade cheese and sage toast with a wedge of St. Andre Brie and a little dollop of our Winter Sunlight marmalade; a clump of grapes; and good coffee.) For years he brought me coffee in bed every morning so this seems like a fair exchange. I bring the breakfast up on a tin tray that was his mother’s and then I set up a wooden bed tray that he thinks belonged to his grandmother. He remembers being 4 years old, visiting his grandmother in Sheffield, and having an earache which she soothed by dripping warm oil into his ear. He almost remembers the tray on his bed, a special treat for a small boy with a sore ear.

morning tray2

When I was folding the tray up yesterday morning, I noticed the little label on the back: John Watts Sheffield & London Limited. I was curious and so I looked Mr. Watts up. It turns out the company archive is held by Sheffield City Archives, among them records including correspondence, accounts, and weekly records of productions from 1916-1983. The company manufactured cutlery, scissors, cabinets, and other goods. And as it turns out, elegant folding trays so a small boy and the man he became can enjoy breakfast in bed.

John’s parents were proud northerners. They believed in quality and they believed Sheffield-made objects were superior. We have many pieces of Sheffield cutlery as well as a beautiful Sheffield-plate coffee pot dating from before 1840, given to his parents as a wedding gift. We use it on Christmas morning or other times when it seems important to serve coffee in something old and lovely. We think of the family members who gave us these things and those who will have them after we’re gone.

These are difficult days. I hear John on the deck, walking back and forth on his new hips, the one foot that has lost all feeling in its exoskeleton, heavy and dark. I hear his effort. When we climb the stairs, him with a crutch and me behind, reminding him of the order–good foot, bad foot, crutch, good foot, bad foot, crutch– I know we are climbing to a world unknown. The sound of it is far away, like weather that might settle or might pass over. This morning I went for a swim and saw new snow at the very top of Mount Hallowell. I’ll fill the woodbox with dry sappy fir and keep the house warm. And the old things around us, the silver and linens, the wooden tray connect us, him, to those who have always cared.

that bird is blue

My grandson Henry called me on WhatsApp this morning. He stood in his blue pyjamas (No, he corrected his grandpa, it’s a sleeper!) in the hall of his house in Edmonton and I read him a story, then his grandpa told him a story. He didn’t want us to sing, though sometimes that’s exactly what he wants.

While I was reading Iron Hans to him, a Steller’s jay settled on the railing outside. Look, Henry, I said. The jay has come for his breakfast. I turned the phone towards the deck and Henry’s eyes opened wide. That bird is blue, he said excitedly.

that bird is blue

And what blue. It’s a colour I dream of regularly, pure blue. It’s a colour I write about. Earlier this morning I was checking something in the manuscript of essays I am in the process of finding a publisher for and I read this passage, from an essay called “The Blue Etymologies”:

Careless about gloves, I am caught blue-handed. My thumbs make a blue mark on paper. I have plunged tied and clamped fabric, some of it heavy with bound stones, into a vat of indigo dye. Stirred the lengths. Removed them so they could oxidize on a summer morning. Dipped again, many times, my gloves either too hot, or not long enough (blue-wristed, I manipulate bundles of stone-tied linen), and inevitably torn by the cedar stick I am using to stir. The bundles come out of the vat the colour of swamp water but darken to the deepest blue over the course of the morning’s repeated dippings. While I stir, I watch Steller’s jays sail from trees to deck railings. They belong the genus Cyanocitta, gathering the North American jays together. Κυάνεος, or Kuaneos, meaning “deep blue”, combined with Kitta, or Kissa, meaning “jay”. In Homeric times, Kuaneos was the deep blue easing to black, exactly the colour of a Steller’s jay, and oh, the colour I hope for as I dip my bundles repeatedly into a vat of indigo.

Colour is subjective and others might not see what I see when I dry my cloth (stones and string and wooden blocks removed) on the clothesline, gloves abandoned, so that my hands are damp blue as I peg up the lengths. It’s not quite the blue of jays, or the blue of veiled Tuareg men, not the deep indigo of new Levis. I love it but know that I’ll have to try again for the blue I want, my thumb print whorled and ridged on the edges where I’ve gripped before hanging up the cloth to dry in the sun. And later, printed again, on paper, as I make a note after washing my hands, the dye renewed by water. Marked by blue, as the 12th century artist applying lapis lazuli to a manuscript, shaping her brush with her lips repeatedly as she worked, is known to us now by the residues of pigment in the tartar of her teeth.

So there’s the jay and the hope made possible in every vat of indigo dye. I have a basket of fabric prepared for dye and if these lovely Novembers hold on, there might be a window of time wide enough to mix the indigo powder and the other components on the log cedar bench by my vegetable garden. Almost certainly the jays will dart from tree to woodpile to deck railing, hungry for seeds but maybe curious too.

“The body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing.” (Anne Boyer)

rusknyk

Four days after John’s surgery at UBC Hospital, I was in the UBC bookstore, looking for something to read. I’d finished the two New Yorkers I brought with me and then I finished Ben Lerner’s Topeka (a wonderful novel) and my nights alone in a suite near the hospital were pretty much sleepless. I knew Anne Boyer’s poetry and I receive her Mirabilary (“love letters about thinking”) via email and I know I read somewhere (though I can’t find the source now) that she thinks that women are finding new forms for their work that sort of elide genres. So when I saw The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care on the table, I bought it. I’d read the section that appeared in the New Yorker last year and I knew it was about her experience with an aggressive form of triple-negative breast cancer. In some ways it might not have been the best choice for a woman to read in the night, alone, as she waited for her husband to recover enough from a double hip surgery, with complications, to bring him home again, but in so many ways it was perfect company.

I’ve long believed that essays are an ideal form for me, though if your own view of the essay as formal, adhering to the rules we learned in school, paying strict attention to opening paragraphs, thesis, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and (when required) citing source material, then I’m not your writer. I think of the form as endlessly open and capacious, willing to accept experiments, bars of music, instructions for grafting, soup recipes, the history of Ukrainian embroidery, the life cycle of a blue mussel, meditations on mortality, dissertations on historical events, dream diaries, and colour wheels. Anything else? Whatever a writer needs.

What I try to do in my writing is that if I perceive my own weakness or my own occluded vision or some moment in which I am not up to the task of discerning some truth or seeking an idea, I just include that in the writing. I just include in the writing an admission of what I can’t do. I don’t ever want to be a writer whose writing presumes to have all the answers or to speak authoritatively on anything. (interview in The Believer)

Reading The Undying, which is a book-length essay of deep and thoughtful dimensions, was richly satisfying, although sad enough that I found myself weeping as I turned its pages in the narrow circle of light from my reading lamp. It’s a brave book. To track the course of your cancer treatment as you worry about income, the little hoard of paid sick days running out like sand through an hourglass, the loss of your fingernails, your hair, the potential damage–cognitive, physical– from Adriamycin, a chemical administered by nurses in hazmat suits, well, I was stunned by Boyer’s focus and range of scholarship. Her guides, John Donne, Audre Lorde, Aelius Aristides, her friends (the ones who haven’t abandoned her).

Although I finished the book a few days ago, I’ve been keeping it on my desk. There’s so much to learn from it. From the writing, clean and radiant; from the structure of the essay itself, resembling from time to time a section of one of the great epic poems, where the hero(ine) descends to the underworld and faces what is to be found there and returns, forever changed; and from the inclusion of so many sources that I want to follow up with. As someone who has a collection of essays currently under consideration and for whom the best way to cite source material has been (in the past) problematic–I’m not a scholar and have found that using formal citation styles to be awkward–I was excited to see how Anne Boyer has solved that problem for herself: a simplified Notes at the end of the book as well as a good bibliography. I’m glad to have a precedent for this way of citing quoted material and that this book won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction makes it a very good precedent indeed.

I loved what she says in The Believer interview (cited above) about the novel she is currently working on. This is so congenial to me. Sometimes when the material I have at hand leads me into fictional territory, I wonder if I have the right grammar for it. I do my best. But honestly? “The body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing.” Oh yes.

That’s what I’m learning about, going deeper and containing more. You have to think about the tissue between things. Like the way people move through space. In novels, which never happens anywhere else, somebody has to move from one room to another room. So there’s all these prepositions, extra conjunctions, dialogue. Dealing with all these parts, tissue, ligaments, as opposed to poetry’s beautiful condensation of experience, or the essay’s allowance of the body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing.

redux: the scent of aging stone

Note: this post is from November 3, 2014. In turn, it remembers November, 2009. On a rainy west coast day, two weeks in Venice feels like another lifetime. I wonder what I will remember of this day in 5 years to come? What bridge I will dream of and where it will lead me?

_____________________________________

Last night I dreamed of Venice. (Three nights ago, I dreamed my dad met the 14th Dalai Lama in a campsite in the Nicola Valley but that’s another story.) In the Venice dream, we were crossing a canal via a small stone and brick bridge. It seemed very potent — the green water, the grey light, the scent of aging stone. I often have very vivid dreams and I think of them as a kind of story-telling, a continuation of the narratives that shape how I live. But last night’s dream had something to tell me. It felt like that. I did a little dream research this morning to find out what bridges and water mean. One source tells me this: Bridges represent a transitional period in your life where you will be moving on to a new stage. If the bridge is over water, then it suggests that your transition will be an emotional one.

Well, the bridge was one we used regularly during the two weeks we spent in Venice in November, 2009. We walked for hours every day, stopping occasionally for small cups of espresso or glasses of Prosecco (which cost the same as the coffee and which was just as restorative).

from the dream

I loved everything about those two weeks, which had begun as one, with the idea that we’d travel a little more through that part of Italy before returning to Paris where we’d begun that particular trip and where we’d end it. But after the first week, we decided we simply didn’t want to leave. Couldn’t leave. The production of La Traviata we saw, not in La Scala, but an ancient scuola. The wine bar we went to for simple suppers of pumpkin ravioli and salads of bitter greens. Dim churches filled with sad-eyed Madonnas and the odour of candlewax. The patron of our small pensione and his parrot Piero — Piero quickly learned how to imitate John’s laugh and we’d hear him chuckling in the reception area after we’d gone up to our room, an eerie echo.

Today it’s raining too hard to do any of the garden work that I’ve put off — putting things in the cold-frame and the sunroom, planting the last of the spring bulbs, mulching the garlic bed with bigleaf maple leaves. The house smells of roasted butternut squash from the garden and apples from Spences Bridge, ready for soup. I’m listening to Emmylou Harris singing “Hickory Wind” and thinking about those weeks in Venice. A dream’s symbolism can be complex, perhaps, or maybe it can also be a visual longing. If I close my eyes, I can hear Piero calling Ciao as we walked out for the day and the sound of our feet on the little bridge that took us into the beauty of La Serenissima.