Yesterday John took this photograph at the lake while I was still swimming (imagine me off to the left). The weather these days is very unsettled but if it’s not actually stormy in the morning, we head down for a swim, because who knows what the rest of the day will allow. Who knows.
This morning we swam in very light rain. A family of loons was crossing the lake in the distance. At one point, after John was finished and I was still swimming, he tried to call to me because the loons had taken flight and landed just under the cedar you can see at the right of the photograph. I didn’t hear him because I was doing the backstroke and probably the reason I didn’t see the loons then was because I also had my eyes closed. I was thinking as I pushed myself backwards from the right of the photograph to the left. Thinking about Lviv, a city I’ve spent a few days in, and which has somehow become a locus in what I’m currently writing. I’m not calling it a novel, not yet; but I suspect that’s what it will be. Somehow a handful of pages, a few thousand words, characters who aren’t really themselves yet, and a lot of riddles to solve, well, it doesn’t deserve to be called a novel just yet. But Lviv is real, beautiful, and the character who lives there will convince the other character to come.
Which station for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew gleams on a suitcase, when express trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September or in March.
Lviv–in Polish, Lwów, in German, Lemberg, in Russian, Lvov–has seen a lot of history in its 8 centuries. I’m reading as much as I can. We stayed in the historic centre when we were there and so much of what we saw spoke to that history. We stayed on Serbka Street, we explored the Armenian Cathedral, begun in 1363, we saw many plaques commemorating Jewish synagogues including the Golden Rose Synagogue built in the late 16th century and destroyed by the Nazis, and other significant buildings destroyed or repurposed for grain storage during the Soviet period. I’m surprised to recognize that my new writing is finding a place for itself in Lviv but maybe I shouldn’t be. I felt that particular shimmer as I walked through Lviv, the same shimmer I felt in the Nicola Valley when I realized I needed to write about it, in Walhachin, in Ireland, in Prague. It’s as though a curtain parts and I see a glimpse of something, a kind of light, that I need to understand. Writing helps me to do that.
So while the loons were flying over to where I was swimming and a little bit of light was catching the cedars, I didn’t see a thing because my eyes were closed and I was thinking about Lviv. I was peering through the iron gate into the courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral, waiting to hear the bells.
and now in a hurry just pack, always, each day, and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all it exists, quiet and pure as a peach. It is everywhere.
Note: the lines of poetry are from Adam Zagajewski’s wonderful “To Go To Lvov”, translated by Renata Gorczynski.
The other day, during a run of damp weather, I read a note online by the poet Marita Dachsel in which she said she was making rose petal jelly. What an idea. I’ve made many jellies over the years, sweet and savoury, and sometimes added lavender to them–I remember the rosemary jelly with lavender as being delicious with roast lamb; and a little lavender added to blackberries, for jam, is lovely. But rose petals caught my imagination. A damp day, too wet to work outside, and my writing stalled for a couple of reasons: why not gather petals and make some jelly?
Abraham Darby, Munstead Wood, Lady of Shalott, the Lark Ascending, the unnamed moss roses given me decades ago by Mrs Tyner who came to the Coast in the 1940s with her husband Jim, from New Westminster, in an open boat, towing their worldly possessions behind them in a canoe, Madame Alfred Carriere, an anonymous apricot climber that is going crazy beside the garden gate. Picking them with bare feet meant that I came in damp too but oh, the scent, particularly those moss roses, a sport of Rosa x centifolia, first noted in floras in 1720.
Run away with me, won’t you? Run away with me, won’t you? Run away with me, won’t you? It don’t matter where we go.
While I was cutting the roses, I was singing. In the wild and tangled place that is my garden right now, after almost two weeks of rain, I was singing Oh Susannah’s “Tangled and Wild” and in those moments, I did feel like running away. It’s been a stressful time, with the possibility of a telecommunications tower looming (literally) on our horizon (though it seems that the company is stepping back from this location), and I was thinking as I sang that I didn’t want anything to change. The project, if it goes ahead, will “necessitate” 60 trees being taken out across the highway. Old maples the elk lie under on winter mornings, the big Douglas firs, some cedars.
We could live in the mountains Or we could live on the plains Or in a place far too beautiful Too beautiful to name
We live in the shadow of a mountain range and yes, some days it is truly too beautiful to name. Like the roses, the ones I brought into the house in my arms, pulling off petals until I had enough for jelly. I briefly heated them with water, let them infuse, strained them, added sugar, the juice and zest of a Meyer lemon from my own little tree, and brought the mixture to a boil. I added some liquid pectin and after a minute, I took the pot off the heat. It made six jars of jelly, the whole kitchen luscious with the fragrance. It took a couple of days for the jelly to set, a soft set, but I am already thinking of how delicious it will be in the little crevices of a warm croissant. I am thinking of it between plain cake layers with whipped cream. I labelled it this morning and now it will wait in the pantry for the right occasion. Run away with me, won’t you? It don’t matter where we go.
Or a place far too beautiful to name, a garden so wild and tangled that walking in it is like walking in heaven. Abraham Darby, Munstead Wood, Lady of Shalott, the Lark Ascending, the unnamed moss roses given me decades ago by Mrs Tyner. Madame Alfred Carrière, as soft and pink as a baby’s shoulders, an anonymous apricot climber that is going crazy beside the garden gate.
Note: I’m reposting this from January 3, 2021. We’ve been swimming in the lake most mornings for nearly 3 weeks now, ever since the pool closed in late May. And those swims have been in cool water but when we’d come out, the sand was warm and we’d come home to drink coffee in sunlight on our deck. The last week has been chilly, drizzly with rain. It’s felt to me like the lake felt in January, though I’m able to swim for longer than I did then! This morning, maybe half a km. After a few strokes, I can’t really feel my hands and feet but I have enough body fat that I’m buoyant! I am very grateful for the water though. Grateful for the joy I feel when I am in it, moving my arms forward, kicking, under the grey sky.
Four years ago I began to swim regularly at the local pool. In the autumn of 2016 I had some health issues. After being diagnosed in early September of that year with double pneumonia, my doctor wasn’t happy with the xrays and ordered a CAT scan. The scan showed a pulmonary embolism but also some nodes that resulted in a series of tests and consultations and eventually a PET scan because it was suspected I had metastatic lung cancer. Long story short: I didn’t. What did I have? No one knew. I eventually saw a hematologist and he too was a little puzzled. But again, long story short: I’m fine. During the period of uncertainty I think John was more anxious that I was. I was in a state of transparency, or at least that’s how I think of it. I kept being visited by the dead. I felt them around me, their hands on my shoulders, and although it was unsettling at first, it became very comforting. I’d come downstairs in the night to work at my desk and I knew I wasn’t alone. Meanwhile John would be awake upstairs worrying. In November of 2016, I sent him to the pool one morning. Swim, I told him. You need to do something to take you out of yourself for a bit. I wish you’d come too, he’d say, and I was reluctant. Years ago we swam at the pool. Years ago I swam in the lake most summer days with my family. But then things changed. More people were around in both places, I was older, I was less willing to take off my clothes and cavort in a bathing suit. Or not cavort, but you know.
Anyway, we were always walking. Almost every day we’d go up the mountain or around a series of trails in the woods beyond our woods, until we came out on a road, either the one that came down the hill to Sakinaw Lake or else the one that passed the marsh by the creek between Ruby and Sakinaw Lakes, the marsh where we saw kingfishers and turtles and once, in winter, a single swan.
That fall of the mysterious illness, I had trouble walking any distance. My doctor thought it might be an inflammatory response to the pneumonia. My right knee was swollen and it hurt to move too much. But I wasn’t going to swim. Because a bathing suit? Among others?
And then one morning in early January, 2017, I decided I needed to swim. I was drawn to water. I found my old black tank-suit. I joined John at the pool, finding a rhythm to take me up the 20 meters and back again. Back and forth. It wasn’t hard and it felt wonderful. If we went early-ish, there weren’t many people there. A guy who swam laps quite ferociously and who has become a friend (because when someone mentions modernism at the end of your swim, of course you’re going to want to talk to him some more). One or two others whom I knew in other ways years ago and who I know now as morning swimmers.
Because I was so accustomed to my slow kilometer (20 meters x 50 lengths) 3 times a week, I decided to return to the lake again too once the water warmed up in late May. It seemed silly to swim in a pool when I could be in a lake I’ve lived near for 40 years. A lake where we went most summer days when our children were young, where we had a favourite island for boat picnics, where my father fished when he visited us, sometimes bringing back cutthroat trout for a late breakfast. I’d gotten out of the habit of swimming there regularly, in part because the little wild area where we’d always gone had become a more organized park, with sand brought in for a beach, two picnic tables, a toilet, an area kept safe from boats with rope and buoys—and that brought more people, of course. I don’t like change.
Four summers ago I developed a new habit of lake-swimming. John and I went at 8:30, before other people were around. We mostly had the water to ourselves and I could swim the perimeter of the roped-off area for 25 minutes, sometimes watched by a kingfisher or ravens wondering if we’d brought food, sometimes a loon off-shore, swimming in quiet circles, and sometimes in the company of trout who’d jump out of the water for the various generations of flies.
This past year, the lake was a salvation. The pool closed in March when we were officially declared to be in a pandemic. We missed our pool swims. As early as we could bear to enter the cold water, we were going down for a morning swim. As the water warmed up, into June, we were swimming longer. Every morning during the summer. Our Ottawa family came to stay for 2 weeks in July, when air travel was possible (that brief window), and it was lovely to have our grandsons join us most mornings. They went again later in the day too. Angelica and her beau came for a few days from Victoria and one day we all swam at Trail Bay, the day when Angie and Karna were flying home. When we met our Edmonton family at Lac LeJeune in August, we swam in that lake, and in Nicola Lake (twice), and in the Thompson River. My memories of family and summer are sun-spangled, damp with lake water, tangy with salt.
In water I sometimes think I do my best work. I stretch out my arms, I take in the sunlight, the rain, the sound of mergansers muttering over by the logs, the far-off revving of a boat engine, I think about difficulties I am having with writing (I once took apart an essay and put it together in a much better way, all while doing the backstroke), I reconstruct the past so it’s perfectly intact and coherent and present. This is the summer when we put Forrest in a plastic baby bathtub to keep him cool, this is the summer when the wild mint grew around the hardhack, right where the sand now slides into water, the summer of the wasp stings, the summer of Angelica diving over and over until she was perfect, of Brendan wearing his bike cap backwards and hoping to catch a turtle in an old ice-cream bucket. When I am swimming, everything is happening again, and still.
The pool opened in early fall and although it’s different now, you have to book a time and make sure you’re out of the water at the end of your 45 minutes, your mask on as you enter the change room, and leave it, it’s swimming. For John, after a surgery gone sideways, it’s an opportunity to exercise and feel buoyant again. I do my slow kilometer with revisions in mind as I anticipate a new collection of essays tentatively in the works for publication. And I’ve added a twice-weekly winter lake swim to my swimming schedule, a time when I feel completely alive in water both familiar and strange. One morning the ferns on the trail down to the lake were silver with frost and I couldn’t feel my feet as I did a brief few strokes within the roped perimeter.
After that fall and early winter when I waited for specialists to read my xrays and look serious as they traced the nodes with a cursor, when I wore the hospital gowns that never covered enough of me, when I entered the dark space of the machines that made visual the changes in my body, I sometimes forgot who I was. I was a lung with dark mysteries, blood that carried dangerous cargo, legs that longed for mountain trails. I found myself in water, strong and purposeful, swimming the lengths, beyond the rope, ravens vigilant in the cedars, and everything possible again.
This morning I am at my desk, almost dizzy with lack of sleep because of worry about an issue in my immediate neighbourhood. I’ve alluded to it in earlier posts, the proposed erection of a 63 meter telecommunications tower across the highway from our property on a tiny far corner of land owned by a local resort, adjacent to a popular environmental field studies and interpretative centre. Imagine that for a moment. You drive up the Coast with your children, maybe you’re bringing visitors from elsewhere too, and you have in mind a few hours in a wetland location, looking at displays about flora and fauna, taking a walk through nature. The interpretive centre itself is a green building (it even has a green roof!) and you might make a note to attend a future workshop about sustainable energy. So this is your plan and you are surprised to find that you have to enter the site by driving under a 63 meter tower. You can hear it buzz as you pass it.
This morning things look a little more hopeful in that the letters several of us have written to our local government and phone calls made to contacts at the telecommunications company responsible for the tower as well as careful study of the paper trail leading to the decision to allow the tower have revealed a number of lapses in both protocol and, well, let’s just say ethics. It’s actually worse than that but right now I’m saying enough. Maybe more than enough.
What I want to do now to move away from the ugly mechanisms that are at play in the world. I don’t mean I will turn my back entirely. I won’t. But right now I want to think about my own work and the solace it provides me when I wake, sleepless, and come down to my little study at the edge of the forest. I’ve been looking at the individual essays in Blue Portugal, due out next spring. Sometimes when I read them, they are instructive in ways I’d forgotten. From where I sit, I can see a tendril of grape vine finding its way around the corner of the house, reaching for somewhere to hold, and that’s me this morning, reading the title essay and coming across this short meditation on the grape known as Modrý Portugal, “modrý” being Czech for blue. (Note: in the book, I use the page as a field of composition, with sections justified to both margins or else centred on the page, because I want them to move, to entwine, to shift the way we read just a little. This section is right-justified.)
The borders always shifting, archduchies and principalities, entire countries absorbed and then eventually released. Slovenia, Austria, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Burgenland, Illyria. And certainly wine would have been served, made from those ancient vines that never saw Portugal, never waited out an Iberian winter for spring and the wild irises at Sagres, the oranges and lemons bright on their branches in February, near Faro, the cool tiled churches. Perhaps a name gives a plant notions, that it could travel in winters to settle by the sea in a canvas lounge chair, sip a little wine itself (a dry vinho verde, a rich port), could stow away in a corner of a vessel heading to South Africa or the New World. To overhear a woman praying with her children in the great loneliness of steerage quarters, rough linen valise under the bunk, diapers drying on an improvised line.
Some days, days when trouble looms, literally (a huge telecommunication tower is scheduled to be built across the highway from our property, which is troubling in itself, but the chosen location, a corner of property adjacent to the entrance to the Iris Griffith Field Studies and Interpretive Centre, named for a woman who would be horrified at this development, makes clear the lack of respect our regional district and the owners of the property have for the environmental values so many of us hold dear), some days I sit at my desk and imagine myself elsewhere. This morning it’s Lviv, a city I loved when I visited two years ago, and where part of the writing I’m currently working on is set. I don’t actually know what the writing will become. Fiction, mostly. Mostly it’s a dialogue at this point, a series of questions and answers. Attempts at answers. But as I write, I know a few things I’m moving towards. One of them is textiles and how they are repositories of memory and history. Is it a surprise to learn that text and textile share a root?
from Latin textus “style or texture of a work,” literally “thing woven,” from past participle stem of texere “to weave, to join, fit together, braid, interweave, construct, fabricate, build,” from PIE root teks- “to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework.”
In Ukraine, I was drawn to the beautiful rushnyk we saw everywhere, the ritual cloth embroidered or woven with red thread, the colour of life. In churches, they draped the ikons. When we arrived at villages, we were met with bread, salt, and horilka, the bread wrapped in rushnyk. When the family members who learned I’d visited their village (but somehow missed them) came to visit us at a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains, they brought me a piece of Bukovynian rushnyk. I bought some textiles to bring home but of course I wish I’d bought more. I gave my sons (because Angelica was with us in Ukraine and she bought some of her own) and their families a piece of rushnyk each for Christmas in 2019.
I read somewhere that rushnyk were important in a symbolic way in the building of houses, where they were used to raise final beams.
Suffixed form *teks-ōn-, weaver, maker of wattle for house walls, builder (possibly contaminated with *teks-tōr, builder) tectonic; architect from Greek tektōn, carpenter, builder.
They protected hearths and harvests, they were used to wrap newborns, they contained images of sacred fertility and family gatherings. Some days I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wear bright poppies on a shirt, a vyshyvanka, made in the small city of Kosiv, and I think of the woman who stitched them, unknown to me, a granddaughter who returned in search of family history and who found living relatives, and who found a living language of red embroidery and weaving she wants to understand.
What’s going on across the highway has its own language. Public consultation. Technological necessity. A lot of baffle-gab, quite honestly. What wasn’t heard was the sound of children’s voices, the ones we hear on spring days when buses bring classes to nature school and kids learn about wetlands, plant communities, and biodiversity. After the pandemic, buses will pass under the shadow of an enormous tower, higher than the highest trees, a structure utterly out of its element, but somehow deemed appropriate by both the telecommunications giant responsible and the property owners who have given their permission (though for years they have promoted their resort business as a nature sanctuary). It hurts my heart, the one on my sleeve and the one that beat so hard in the night that I couldn’t sleep.
In the work I am currently finding my way into, one of the characters curates a small museum of these textiles, and by coincidence, or not, she is related to to the character who is trying to learn more about her family story. If I keep my head low, listening, my eyes on the cloths I chose in Kosiv, maybe I will learn something of the language essential to understanding a story hidden in red thread.
Prof. Brendan Pass of the University of Alberta is awarded the 2021 CAIMS/PIMS Early Career Award in recognition of his contributions to the study of optimal transport problems. In particular, Dr. Pass has worked on multi-marginal optimal transport problems, Wasserstein barycenters, and optimal transportation between unequal dimensions. These problems have many applications including in economics, physics, and quantum chemistry.
2. When you have a son who is a historian
An “Epidemic” of Fake News a Century Ago
By Forrest Pass
Vaccines work. Yet vaccination opponents have long questioned their effectiveness, in spite of overwhelming evidence. A century-old pamphlet in Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection illustrates how unreliable sources, deliberate misinformation and outrageous conspiracy theories have been used to promote vaccine hesitancy. Reading historical anti-vaccination propaganda with a critical eye can serve as an “inoculation” against misinformation today.
Kishkan’s striking engagement with Wilson’s Hetty Dorval and Swamp Angel (1954) and Watson’s The Double Hook (1959) makes this beautiful meditation on mourning and landscape also a work of creative literary criticism. The novella exemplifies its own theory of feminine cartography. In the pine forests where Swamp Angel’s Maggie Lloyd escapes an abusive husband and finds a new life, the narrator is consoled by “the ordinariness of birds and pines” that overcome “the sorrow of life without … James.” Here, the map carries multiple memories, literary, affective, and familial. To mark the resonances of the location, the narrator “note[s] the date, the location, and dr[aws] a little pine to remind [her] to look up the passage in Swamp Angel,” dropping in the process some pine resin on her map, a symbol of the map’s creative stickiness, the way it picks up and is changed by the stories of the land.
Drumheller Home Is Destroyed By Fire (Special Dispatch to the Herald
Drumheller, June 9
The home of John Kishkan, situated on the Midland road, was razed to the ground by a fire of an unknown origin on Monday afternoon. Mrs. Kishkan had just left the house to feed the chickens in the barn, which is a short distance away, and while doing so noticed flames coming from the roof and immediately raised an alarm. Jack Young, a neighbour, rushed to the scene and attempted to extinguish the flames which had gained ground as the seasoned structure became the prey of the flames.
Other volunteer helpers did all in their power but were handicapped by the fact that water had to be carried in buckets for more than 100 yards, and finally had to stand helplessly by and watch the building being reduced to ashes. There was no time to save household effects and they too were reduced to ashes. The loss, which is estimated at $2,700, is covered by insurance.
One of the essays in my forthcoming Blue Portugal (due out in Spring, 2022) is called “The River Door” and it’s an attempt to find actual evidence of my grandparents in Drumheller after their marriage in 1920. My grandmother had been married before and her first husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. I’ve tried to locate them in time and geography, using cryptic comments and notes on the back of old photographs. One photograph shows a rough wooden house behind a group of mourners who surround a small casket with the body of Julia, the first child my grandparents had together. Julia died of tonsillitis in 1923. In the census of 1926, there were 10 people in the household–my grandparents and the 8 children from my grandmother’s first marriage. A number of those children were grown and I don’t know how many were living there in 1931 when the house burned but my father would have been 5 years old. In this photograph, taken at the old house in 1928 or 9, you can see the washtubs, which makes me suspect there wasn’t running water in the house. Did they have a pump? Where was the water source for the buckets carried 100 yards? I don’t know that but I do know now when the house burned and why my father talked about the old house and the next one and maybe even why he was back and forth to his sisters in Beverly during the 1930s, showing up on school records in both Beverly and Drumheller, even winning prizes for his singing! And I have another name to search for when I look at property records. If Jack Young was the neighbour, maybe that will bring me a step or two closer to figuring out exactly where my grandmother fed her chickens and washed her family’s laundry in those tubs.
5. When you remember the old rhyme and ponder its wisdom
One for sorrow, Two for mirth Three for a funeral, Four for birth Five for heaven Six for hell Seven for the devil, his own self
Or its alternate version
One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told
You can think of the rhyme as the roses cascade over your bedroom window, a secret never to be told, while inside, like Sleeping Beauty, you are safe from the devil, his own self.
Friday was the last day our local pool was open. We’ve had the luxury of swimming 3 times a week since September — last spring they were closed during the first part of pandemic but found a way to open safely, with strict protocols regarding numbers, etc. We’ve been swimming there since 2016, though many years ago we also swam pretty regularly when our children were in school. Summers we swim in the lake, though I spent years not going with John and the kids because I don’t like crowds and there were always quite a few people at the little sandy beach area late afternoons. And who could blame them? A clean lake, good access now that a parking area has been put in and the regional district brings in sand every year? When we first began to swim in this area, 40 years ago (and even earlier for John, who came for years before I knew him), anyway, when we first began to swim here, you parked in a little area off the highway and walked on a rough trail to where you could get into the water between native willows and wild spirea. The lake bottom was a bit mucky but the water was lovely. It still is. When I began to go again regularly, about 5 summers ago, I realized that it was quiet first thing in the morning. We’d arrive around 8:30, mostly to kingfishers and the prints of deer and bears in the sand before the maintenance guy arrived to take away garbage and rake the beach. The sight of the sun coming up over the mountain, behind the cedars, as I swim in deep green water is something I cherish on summer mornings.
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
It’s not quite summer yet. But the pool, as I mentioned, is closed until July for some upkeep work. When you swim regularly, you need it. You need the feeling of your aging body in water, you need the buoyancy, the silkiness as you reach out your arms to propel yourself forward and back. Lake swimming is heaven. I tried to keep it up over the winter but honestly it wasn’t really swimming, the times I went down, wrapped in towels, a toque on my head. It was more a waking. The water was so cold and I’d immerse myself, doing a few circles until I couldn’t feel my feet or hands, and come out. I felt spectacular, so alive, and I loved the sense of knowing the lake in winter. I’ll do it every year. But this morning the water was not that cold. Cool, yes, but once I did a length or two, I felt the way I feel in summer: strong, purposeful, held by water.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
The lake has its stories. It was used as a holding pond in the early years of the 20th century and sometimes if you are out in a boat and the light is right, you can see the huge logs that never got removed. People have drowned in the lake, several over the years we’ve lived here. Last summer one person died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a cabin. A few months ago, someone at the pool told us about an accident he’d been involved in which his boat ran over a swimmer. It has happier stories too. Families whose children have grown up swimming in the lake each summer, families who now have grandchildren who come to the lake each day they are staying with their grandparents. When I hear a young girl calling to her father as she swims, I remember our Angelica diving from the rocks near where we swim, asking her dad to score her dives. 8! 9! That’s a 10!
It might be just rumour or legend but supposedly there are drowned bodies still in the lake. I think of them now and then, wondering what’s left of them. It’s rumoured that the lake is salt at the bottom and that makes sense. It drains into Sakinaw Lake which was once connected to the ocean; the top 100 feet of Sakinaw is fresh and the bottom 350 feet is salt. Some years we’ve found jellyfish in the lake. There are fresh-water clams. Lots of geese. Loons. Ducks of several species. A special race of fall-spawning cutthroat trout—our family knows about these because Forrest once conducted a census of the trout population as a science fair project in grade 8 or 9.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
If a lake can be haunted, so can be its swimmers, the ones who come in toques in January, the ones with the plastic buckets and swim rings in July, and the ones like the woman who is the tiny dot in the middle of the photograph at the top of this post. (She talks to the water as she eases through it. Does it talk back? She’ll never tell.) As I swam this morning, I felt like myself again, the self that almost feels she could circumnavigate the lake without stopping. Almost.
Note: the poem is Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning”, from her Collected Poems.
We were on the upper deck yesterday morning, arranging tomatoes in their final places before John set up strings suspended from hooks in the fascia and from a long pole hung horizontally in front of the sunroom for the tall tomatoes to climb when I looked down to where the greenhouse sat partly in shadow as the sun came fully up over Mount Hallowell to the east. We were on the deck in full sunlight, cups of coffee on the table, the sound of bees in the daylilies and roses, and I was caught on one of those wrinkles in time when I forgot for a moment where I was, and when, and how. Whose was the wheelbarrow filled with soil? The yellow bucket catching water from the tiny eaves-trough? I could see it all from a great distance. It was as though I was above everything, floating in the air as light as dandelion seed. Was it a trick of the light, the way the side of the greenhouse was somehow a mirror, a portal? The trees were alive, deeply alive, and a western tanager shot by me at shoulder level, heading for the maples down the bank where I think a pair is nesting. Sure enough, moments later, their song, short phrases, 3 notes mostly, raspier than a robin’s, breaking the brief spell and bringing me back to the work at hand, which was finding more string for John to loop through the tomato cages and up to the hooks, around the pole.
I am sitting at my desk, wishing for that moment again, as I listen to rain in the wisteria vine just beyond my window. More sun was promised! But instead, a grey sky, a Swainson’s thrush whit, whit, whitting in the woods, and yesterday’s laundry, left on the line, drooping with the rain. The yellow bucket is in place, the beans all planted, and I am still remembering yesterday’s moment when I was dizzy with light, with birdsong, with possibility.
A slight rain comes, bathed in dawn light. I hear it among treetop leaves before mist Arrives. Soon it sprinkles the soil and, Windblown, follows clouds away. Deepened
Colors grace thatch homes for a moment. Flocks and herds of things wild glisten Faintly. Then the scent of musk opens across Half a mountain — and lingers on past noon.
Last night I went from one dream seamlessly into the next, all of them connected somehow, until the last one. I was in the ocean, somewhere like Ross Bay or even Cox Bay, far far out. I’d drifted, floating in the water, thinking about other stuff, until I realized I was half across a wide strait, maybe the Strait of Juan de Fuca, out past the breakwaters and out of sight of anyone. No one knew I’d gone swimming by myself. How would I get back to shore?
And what now, I thought. I am out beyond my depth. Anyone’s depth. I was in the shipping lanes. There were tankers not too far away. What now. No one knew where I was.
I will have to swim hard to ever reach the shore, I told myself. I told myself I don’t even know the crawl (it’s true, I don’t. My slow kilometre, 3 times a week, is achieved, if I might use the word, by side-stroke, back-stroke, and a very inept breast-stroke). I turned back to begin the long journey back to shore and realized how deep the water was, how (suddenly) treacherous and cold.
The shore, far away, was luminous in late afternoon sunlight. I turned, I began to swim, and somehow knew I would never reach it by dark.
I was sitting in that blue chair just now, drinking my coffee, when it occurred to me that the greenhouse we built to solve a few issues—too many plants in winter in the sun-room off our bedroom so that we can’t actually sit in it, which was the whole point when we designed the sun-room more than 30 years ago being perhaps the most important…—has in fact enabled my habit of never discarding seedlings when I transplant them. Choose the strongest plants, we’re told. But what if they all have the potential to be strong, given half a chance? That’s the reason I have at least 50 tomato plants this year and no room on the upper deck for eggplants and peppers which will spend their summer in the greenhouse. I was sitting in the greenhouse, drinking my coffee, when I suddenly felt, well, a little crowded. Some things will be moved out once the good weather is here to stay. Long tubs of basil will join the tomato plants. On the shelves at the end, on the left, are the pumpkins and other squash, just waiting for really warm nights. A few last trays of beans. (Most have been planted but there are still more…)
I don’t know any other way to do this. You plant seeds. You care for the seedlings. And then, what, you have to discard some because they’re not strong enough? Anyway, we’ll have eggplants, poblano peppers, and tomatoes. Beans. Cinderella pumpkins. Is there anything better in summer? Last week I took the last carton of roasted tomato sauce from the freezer, made from last summer’s abundance. (Method is here, if you’re interested.)
Last night I dreamed I was almost awake when I heard a voice, one of my children but I didn’t know which one, leaning over me as I slept, saying, Mum, mum. Mum, I’m here. And in the dream, I thought, Why have you come now, in the night, when it was fall I hoped to see you? It was a strange half-dream and I know it came from the experience of revisiting, for an essay, the memories of John’s surgery and its aftermath in October and November, long difficult weeks, with little sleep, so much anxiety as we kept having to return to hospital for various issues, and how isolated I felt during that period. It wasn’t as though it was a time when anyone else could have helped. Our Provincial COVID numbers weren’t great, people were being asked to stay home, within their pod, and we were told at UBC Hospital that we must consider John medically vulnerable for some weeks. Writing about those days, those weeks, took me there again and the voice in the night, saying, I’m here, Mum, was welcome but also discordant. You can’t be here. The timing is wrong. And when I woke, I was filled with messy complicated feelings.
My greenhouse is therapy these days. I sit with my coffee, breathing in the deep green scent of basil, rosemary, the soil mix I make with alfalfa pellets taking me back to the days when I had a horse and fed him a section of a bale of alfalfa most evenings, and I close my eyes while eggplants settle into their pots and everything grows in the spring light. I didn’t think I’d be writing about a dream when I started this post, didn’t think I’d be back, however briefly, at the UBC Hospital, listening to a nurse explain the process of care and healing.
What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools
between hard pleasant tasks
–Gary Snyder, “What Have I Learned” (from the gorgeous Axe Handles)