re-enter the wind-rush of time passing

•January 14, 2017 • 6 Comments

venus-de-laussel

The other day I had a lengthy scan at the B.C. Cancer Agency, part of a strange series of tests and diagnostics I’ve been engaged in for the past four and a half months. For this one, I was injected with radioactive glucose. I sat in a chair with a warmed flannel blanket over me, listening to Bach — the nursing team are kindness incarnate — while the glucose was distributed through my body. I wasn’t allowed to read. So I thought instead. Having heard this morning’s Quirks and Quarks show on meditation, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meditating. I thought of the Venus of Laussel, a limestone bas-relief sculpture I saw a few years ago in Bordeaux. She dates from 29000-22000 B.C.E. and has traces of red ochre on her breasts and abdomen. When I saw her, I knew her. There’s nothing pop about her body. She’s full and abundant. She’s one of a group of female figures from the Paleolithic period and although there’s some debate about what she’s holding — a horn of plenty? A symbol of a woman’s lunar cycles (there are 13 lines inscribed in the shape)? — I think it’s clear that she’s a fertility symbol. A woman who has likely born children and has known good meals, who has probably even provided them, from her own body and her own ingenuity.

She was a good companion for me during that part of the procedure. And when I had to lie on the narrow plank and enter the long cylinder for the scan itself — it took 20 minutes — I closed my eyes and thought of her again. It helped immensely to have her present. I brought to my mind’s eye my husband and my children, their partners, my 3 grandchildren. Then I visualized each of my books, counting them by genre — 3 collections of poetry, 3 novellas, 3 novels, 2 collections of essays, and 1 memoir. I concentrated on their covers. Each image. Could I remember the fonts used for the titles? My eyelids fluttered with effort and I almost cried. I was afraid if I opened my eyes, I would be nothing. I would be someone with radioactive glucose in her body and possibly something worse. But the goddess, her face absent of features but her body so complex and whole, stayed with me the whole time.

And when I came ouf of the cylinder, it was like being reborn. Sort of. I thought of John Berger’s observations about the Chauvet Cave:

Step outside the cave and re-enter the wind-rush of time passing. Reassume names. Inside the cave everything is present and nameless. Inside the cave there is fear, but the fear is in perfect balance with a sense of protection.

when winter came to the door…

•January 13, 2017 • 8 Comments

… we fed him. (We think the cat is a male but we’re not actually sure.) He came out of the woods on the coldest days, timid at first, wild. I put out dishes of food and he’d approach quickly, but without making any eye contact. But he’s not wild at all. Abandoned, maybe. Because it’s so cold, I made him a bed in a sheltered area, with an old pillow and some polar fleece. When I went to straighten it while he was eating the other morning, I found a tiny dead shrew tucked into one fold of the fleece. (Just in case?) I’ve put a note on Craigslist and a little card on the community mailboxes where everyone in our sparsely-populated area collects mail. Silence so far. This morning he came in and looked around. He found the rocking chair by the fire.

winter.jpg

“with the days unspooling”

•January 9, 2017 • 2 Comments

tracks

North America and Europe have been experiencing cold weather, colder than usual. We often have a few very cold days in mid-winter, some snow, but this year — and last, because we’re only just into 2017 — we’ve had a lot of snow and temperatures around minus 10. Last night it rained and everything is melting today. What I’ve enjoyed about the snow is seeing the tracks and realizing, again, how populated this area truly is. Deer tracks, elk, weasels winding up and down the driveway — and a cat. A wild cat. Not a bobcat (we have those too) but a black and white cat hovering around. Yesterday its tracks were so clear in the snow, wandering around under the bird feeder, the woodpile (where mice nestle in for the season), the compost box (where mice nest, too, for the warmth), and then darting under the old dog-house, uninhabited now but restored, just in case. I was surprised because there are coyotes around and a cat would make a good breakfast for a hungry canine. Especially in winter. I put a little dish of food out in a protected area and see this morning that it’s empty.

The other day we went for a walk around what we call the Sakinaw loop. Down our driveway to the highway, along for about a quarter of a kilometer to Sakinaw Lake Road, down that long hill to the lake and Haskins Creek where the coho spawn, and then along a trail that leads through the woods below our property, meeting our driveway again beyond the gate to our neighbour’s place. We were talking, talking, as we always do. It’s been a 38 year conversation at this point in our lives. I’ve just finished a book of essays and John is coming to the end of a collection of poems so we discussed what we hoped the work had done –in my case, to explore old ground in a new way; and in John’s, to complete a sequence long in the making, about animals. At the top of Sakinaw Lake Road, we noticed the coyote tracks, fresh, in the snow, two sets, one on either side of the road, leading down the hill that we were also walking (carefully) down. Sometimes one set of tracks would edge closer to the other set and at one point, there were signs of a skirmish or play in the deeper snow by the salmonberry bushes. You could see at another point that one animal had run for a bit. But mostly the pair was ambling, as we ambled. I expected the tracks to lead over to the creek where there might still be some carcasses to feed on. But no. They continued, as we continued, along the trail through the woods. Fresh scat. The bodies coming closer together as ours came closer together where the trail narrowed.

There’s lots of research that tells us coyotes practice social monogamy – they live together for long periods but might mate with others. But recent research suggests they also practice genetic monogramy. They only reproduce with each other. I don’t know if the tracks we were following belonged to the pair who mate each year, in late February, in the woods near us. We’ve heard them. (It’s something that I wrote about in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, part of the book titled for that essay,  due out in September…) And one year one of their pups came most mornings for a week, in August, eating salal berries just below the deck where we were drinking coffee with one of our sons, watching as it explored, even entering the old dog-house to try out the space.

So I walked down the road with my life partner, talking, and just ahead of us on the trail, the coyotes were ambling too, either talking, or not, with the days unspooling ahead of them.

The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
    --Gary Snyder

what will it be?

•January 6, 2017 • 12 Comments

mussel

Today is my birthday. 62 years. I am sitting at my desk watching snow fall so beautifully on the trees beyond my window. This always seems like the true beginning of the year, the day of the Epiphany (even though I’m not a Christian). My own faithful Oxford dictionary is a little disappointing when it comes to defining “epiphany”, choosing to stress its Christian context. But the Merriam-Webster is a little more interesting and I’m wondering if or what the illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure might be:

Definition of epiphany

plural

epiphanies

  1. 1 capitalized :  January 6 observed as a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles or in the Eastern Church in commemoration of the baptism of Christ

  2. 2 :  an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being

  3. 3 a (1) :  a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) :  an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) :  an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure b :  a revealing scene or moment

where we meet

•January 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

bricks.jpg

Some writers are companions, though you never meet them in person. Their books sit on your desk, your shelves, your bedside table, ready for conversation. For solace. And for advice. Often the advice is oblique. But when you’ve read their books for years, decades even, you are familiar with the codes.

John Berger died yesterday. He’s been one of those writers for me, though of course I know I’m not alone (and that feels comforting). Sometimes when I’ve struggled with boundaries in my work — prose? poetry? fiction? not? — I’ve turned to his books. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, for example: love, loss, absence, and the spaces in between, written in the most beautiful elliptical language possible. And the one I keep close to hand, always: Here Is Where We Meet. A fiction, the cover tells us. But is it? The narrator, John, meets his mother on a park bench in Lisbon. She has been dead fifteen years. “I’ve learned a lot since my death,” she tells John. “You should use me while you are here. You can look things up in a dead person like a dictionary.”

I take that to heart. My mother comes to me quite often, though she died in 2010. And in surprising places (though perhaps I should not be surprised at all):

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

No one wrote about food like John Berger. The feast in To The Wedding! And the preparation of the wild sorrel soup in Here Is Where We Meet! No one wrote about art in such an inclusive and democratic way. I’ve never forgotten his piece in the Guardian on the Chauvet caves. He went in to see the drawings, 25,000 – 32,000 years old, the animals, the hand-prints in red ochre and the stencils of hands in dark pigment, and he wrote so evocatively of the place and those who came to work there, to enter the mystery.

How frequently did they come? Did generations of artists work here? No answers. Perhaps there never will be. Perhaps we have to be content with intuiting that they came here to experience, and to carry away with them in memory, special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?

a street in Toulouse.jpg

What did I know, what did I know…

•January 2, 2017 • 5 Comments

the shelves.jpg

In our quiet house, I woke at 5 and got up to work on something I’d put aside over the Christmas holidays. The house was cold. John is usually the first one up and he makes a fire, brings coffee to me in bed. Am I grateful enough for these things? Probably not. So many mornings I’ve propped myself up on pillows and sipped the first cup of dark coffee, smelling the beautiful odour of cedar kindling catching in a cold stove. This morning I made the fire and I can hear it snapping now as I sit at my desk and reflect on the past year, drinking coffee that somehow tastes different than that first cup in bed. I remember a few lines from Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays”:

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Last night there was a new moon to the southwest of the house, with Venus nearby. I don’t exactly make resolutions but try to begin each year as I mean to continue it. Yesterday doesn’t count because we were in transit, returning home from Vancouver where we’d gone to see off part of our family. But this morning, I’ve made some corrections to an essay, thanks to Forrest’s good mind which caught a few errors (or maybe assumptions) about my father’s family history; at his urging, I checked old records and realized I’d miscalculated a few things.

 

I want to do good work this year. My own, and also something on behalf of the planet. I’m not sure what, exactly, but something. Recent health issues have convinced me that I have to proceed as though time is precious. It is, I know, and I’ve always thought that. But looking at writing files this morning, I see many beginnings and not a lot of conclusions. I’m going to attend to that. I’m grateful that I have space, a life that allows me to work in relative solitude when I need to, and the luxury of doing the writing I need to do. I don’t want to find myself out of time and full of regret for not having used what I had with care and respect.

 

Up early, grateful for the fire (and the person who usually makes it), coffee (ditto), and all the possibilities held in the hand, the heart, ready.

We twa hae run about the braes

•January 1, 2017 • 2 Comments

looking out onto Bidwell Street.jpg

Last night we accompanied Forrest, Manon, and Arthur part-way home to Ottawa, going as far as Vancouver where we took them to dinner at a favourite restaurant. Three years ago we went to the same restaurant, with Angelica too, and sat at the same corner table, looking out into the warm room. We ate well, drank some delicious Desert Hills viognier, and came back to our little hotel in a snow-storm. A bottle of Prosecco waited in the fridge for a toast to the season and an early morning departure. A little earlier in the evening, while Forrest and Manon were getting Arthur ready for the bus ride across town to the restaurant, I looked out the window at what seemed like the last of old Vancouver remaining in the West End (though I know there are other small pockets of the past still standing among the high rises…). Snow, light from the storefronts, the prospect of one more dinner with people I love on the last night of the year — all of it transpired to make me cry in front of the window. In my mind, I heard Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis sing the beautiful “Auld Lang Syne” as they sang it once, in summer, here on the Coast during the Celtic Summer Music camp.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

John and I returned home this afternoon to a house emptied of voices. Just the fire crackling. And me, humming “Auld Lang Syne”. Robert Burns wrote the poem in 1788 but said that he’d collected some of it from other singers and shaped what we now know as his version to fit a traditional folk melody. It’s beautiful — as a sung ballad, as a poem, even as a page of manuscript, in the hand of Robert Burns, in the Scots Musical Museum, a publication devoted to archiving the traditional music of Scotland.

auld-lang-syne

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

A watery strait between us and one beloved child, and mountains and prairies to cross to reach the others. A New Year full of promise and hope, for auld lang syne.