“Would I love it this way if it could last”

chilly morning

It would be easy to feel hopeless. To be consumed by sadness for those dying alone, a phone held to the ear of a woman unconscious in hospital in New York, a prayer whispered through time and space. Sometimes I do feel hopeless. Mostly at bedtime, when my instinct is to burrow under the covers and never come out again. But then I wake in the night to pee and there are stars, the same stars as ever were. Owls call still. The salmonberry blossoms are out, the cerise flutters that bring hummingbirds, bees.

Mostly I’ve been working outside. The mornings are cold but by noon it’s often warm enough to shed a layer or two and try to finish the final bed, Raspberry Beret, one of the long barrows of earth where we’ve been growing (what else) raspberries. This particular bed has become overrun with invasive grass, its wiry white roots tenacious. I’m using a pick. Yesterday a robin followed my progress, waiting until I went to empty a bucket of grass and roots to plunge into the loose soil for worms. In a month we’ll hear their salmonberry song as the berries begin to ripen.

Would I love it this way if it could last
would I love it this way if it
were the whole sky the one heaven

I feel sorrow for the sick and the dying, their families and friends. I wish we were all just going on with our lives in the usual ways of spring. In our house we have enough to eat, a case of Wild Goose wine on its way, enough firewood to get us through to May. The coldframe is filled with pots of spinach seedings, rapini, salads of one kind or another, and first peas are planted out with the second sowing sprouting behind the woodstove. The tomatoes are sulky. When I’m working outside, it could be any year. The same tools, the same beds, the constellations of volunteer kale, umbels of primroses, Algerian iris from John’s mum’s garden near Nanaimo, the moss roses showing their lime green buds. I hear tree frogs but I haven’t seen one, though their pot of water is waiting, the yellow flag irises shooting up to provide shade once it’s needed.

through bamboo

April is poetry month, as if it needs its own month, and yes, poetry helps. Think of William Stanley Merwin, his eyesight fading, working in his garden on Maui, restoring rainforest to an area of wasteland, and writing poems that “feel like part of some timeless continuum, a river that stretches all the way back to Han Shan and Li Po”, season after season, asking himself,

would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees

*lines are from “The Morning”, Garden Time, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

This was written on March 31, 2014. 6 years later I am anticipating the publication (in a month or so) of a novella written in homage to the novellas of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. They were the compass and the maps I had in my mind and on my desk as I wrote The Weight of the Heart.


I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

how to make a log cabin while sheltering in place

for a

Sheltering in place is easier when the sun is shining. We spent the fine days outside, working in the garden, burning the piles of old branches and raked cones, etc. It wasn’t until the evening that I’d feel the spiral of anxiety taking me to its centre. What if, what if, what if.

And now it’s raining. I am working on a memoir with John, or at least I’m writing my part and he’s writing his; later we’ll figure out how to seam them together. There are a number of ways we could do it and we’ll have to decide later what we want to do, how we want the perspectives to work together, to diverge, to return, to echo. But sometimes I feel too distracted to work with ideas and memories. I want to do hand work.

In the meantime, there’s quilting. My friend A. helped me with the text design for my little chapbook made in honour of my 65th birthday. We were doing this back and forth, as she lives in the Netherlands. She was so helpful and so responsive that I asked her what colours she would choose for a textile. This is what she replied:

Colours…are you asking what I think you’re asking? Regardless, I’m a fan of deep reds (not burgundy, but redder, earthier) and what W. refers to as ‘non-colour’ greens. Olive, forest, greens that blend in. Dark blues too. Is that boring?

No, not boring at all. (And yes, I was asking what she thought I was asking.) Not boring, but a challenge. I have a trunk with fabric collected over the years, some of it remnants from other projects and some of it scraps hoarded for the right quilt. For years I made blue and yellow quilts and if I’m honest, those are still the colours I love best. And stars. I made several Variable Star quilts and then decided to do something else. So I made a plan and began to cut and (I’m not joking) the blocks turned into Variable Stars. It was as though my hands were guided in a direction I had no control over.

I’ve been thinking about what kind of design would work best for this quilt of non-colour greens and blues. And that red, not burgundy. I always have lots of blue but did I have the right blue? I hope so. I found a stash of scraps from Maiwa on Granville Island. I’d gone to buy indigo powder for a dyeing project and there was a bin of linen with bags alongside and a sign saying you could fill a bag for $10. A big bag, good quality linen, with several shades of what I’m hoping is non-colour green.

So writing a book about building a house and wondering what kind of quilt to make. Then it came to me. A log-cabin quilt. I’ve made three and I love the process of building the blocks, log-strip by log strip. It’s a pattern that is generally associated with post-Civil War American quilt-making but some textile scholars believe that the inspiration reaches back to the ancient Egyptians. When tombs were opened in the early 19th century, archaeologists were surprised to find mummified animals, companions to the dead, wrapped in intricately woven or pieced strips of linen. There are several ways of arranging the strips in log-cabin quilts so that resulting pattern might be a Barn Raising, Sunshine and Shadows, Courthouse Steps, or Straight Furrows. I made mine into what I think of as Gods Eyes, mostly because my skills are so careless that my blocks never come together nicely.  Here’s a section from a quilt I made 20 years ago for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary; it’s now on my bed.

50th anniversary

The red square in the centre of each block represents the hearth at the heart of the cabin, though there are versions with yellow squares for lighted windows, and black squares on quilts used as coded guides on the Underground Railroad. I’m using little scraps of duppioni silk for A’s quilt. More than 40 years ago I attended a quilt show at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland and saw beautiful examples of patchwork made with the most luxurious fabrics. But I lost my heart to the rough log cabin quilts, worked by poor women, made from flour sacks and remnants of work clothing. They were lopsided, with loose stitches and mismatched strips echoing examples their makers had seen in the big houses where they might have taken a chicken to sell or scrubbed floors for a few pence.

You build log by log, strip by strip. In the book you are writing, you remember nailing plywood for subfloors to joists set on beams. When the plywood was nailed down, when the walls were lifted and tied together at the corners, when the rafters were set on the top-plates of the walls, and then the strapping nailed on to the rafters and the shakes nailed on, course by course, when the cedar siding was nailed onto the exterior, you had a house that eventually became a home. One by one I’ll make these blocks, trying to keep the courses straight and true, a way to work my way through these days of rain and isolation. I’ll use earthy red for the sashing and maybe fasten each square with two-eyed shell buttons for vision. Fire at the heart, sturdy walls, from my home to hers.

“There is a trick to how/this bed was made”

wisteria wood

All winter we’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, sitting by our fire, passing the book back and forth. I’ve written here before of my love for Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. I read it first as an undergraduate and I still have my copy from those days, with the price stamp — $2.04 — from the University of Victoria’s bookstore. I’d like to say that Peter Smith introduced me to this translation but it was an earlier (and less vivid) professor in what was then the Classics department. But Peter talked to me later about it, the long muscular lines of the poem and how the rhythm of those lines was part of what it made it so memorable. Its tradition after all was an oral one. In those years we read Milman Parry whose scholarship focused on the formulaic structures of epic poetry, the devices and strategies integral to the performance of the work. In an interview, Fitzgerald said something about Homer that rings so true:

His art was comparable to the art of the great musical virtuoso who can improvise, who can sit at the piano and by his mastery, both of the performing technique and of the musical background, can make music.

It seems to me that this newer translation is a different kind of work. Wilson doesn’t attempt the 6-footed lines, the dactylic hexameters that were the measure of ancient Greek narrative poetry. Her Homer sings in iambic pentameter. I pretend to no expertise in Greek prosody or English for that matter and my Greek is very small indeed. This Odyssey reads wonderfully but it’s not performative. It’s intimate, perfect for two people reading aloud on a winter evening.

We’re not quite finished. We’re reading Book 23 (of 24 books), “The Olive Tree Bed”. It’s always been my favourite part of the poem and now, 40 years married, I sort of understand why. It’s about loyalty, marital codes, caution. It’s anchored in the most perfect domestic object: a bed. After Odysseus has killed the suitors and the insolent slave girls who consorted with them, after he has walked through his rooms, naked, fumigating them with smoke and sulfur, he is bathed and dressed and is seated before his wife, who has not yet decided if he is the man who left 20 years earlier and whose homecoming she has longed for. She wants this to be him but is he truly her husband? He asks his old nurse Eurycleia, for a bed so he can rest. Penelope directs her to move their bed outside their room and to make it up with blankets and quilts. Odysseus responds in anger.

Woman! Your words have cut my heart! Who moved
my bed? It would be difficult for even
a master craftsman—though a god could do it
with ease. No man, however young and strong,
could pry it out. There is a trick to how
this bed was made. I made it, no one else.
Inside the court there grew an olive tree
with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green,
as sturdy as a pillar, and I built
the room around it. I packed stones together,
and fixed a roof and fitted doors. At last
I trimmed the olive tree and used my bronze
to cut the branches off my root to tip
and planed it down and skillfully transformed
the trunk into a bedpost. With a drill,
I bored right through it. This was my first bedpost,
and then I made the other three, inlaid
with gold and silver and with ivory.

I love this moment in the poem. The bed is as symbolic of their marriage as any ring or vow and this is when Penelope’s reticence dissolves.

As well as reading the Odyssey, we’re working on a shared project, a memoir of building our house. John’s writing upstairs and I am here, at my desk, thinking and remembering my way back to those years. I’m writing about the domestic details for the most part—caring for an infant in between hammering and lifting walls, making meals on a Coleman stove and a fire within a ring of stones with an old oven rack on top for a grill. John is writing about the rafters over our kitchen and how they were fitted onto the top plates of the walls. In a way it’s one of the secrets of our particular house, our marriage. Are you really my husband? Then tell me how did you discover the simple way to cut a birdsmouth joint? Which footing has our initials in it, drawn in damp concrete by finger? Where exactly is the cobbled stone path I made to the outhouse, now long grown over?

We’ve been reading at night but I’ve also begun to suggest that we read whenever I feel rising anxiety, often just after the Prime Minister’s daily update. To sit and read this old story filled with storms, murderous creatures, sorceresses, unexpected kindnesses, abiding love and deep purpose is one thing we can do in our house on the edge of the continent during this time of crisis.


redux: “What are years?”

I wrote this in November and who would have imagined that the Louvre would be closed, that lights have been dimmed over great areas of the planet, and that we live from day to day in time’s uncertain embrace.

winged victory

If you read this blog now and then, you  know that time is something I think about a fair bit. How we are shaped by it, how we conceive it, where it comes from, where it goes. We say it passes but it doesn’t. We are always in its flow, carried with it, through it. It doesn’t always feel like a continuum but it is. I think.

One of our sons is in Paris with his family for part of the autumn. He is working in what I think of as deep math. It’s a world that has held him since he was a small boy, walking down our driveway with his grandfather, telling him that numbers exist below zero. He was 3 or 4. I’ve tried to take the measure of that world—if you’ve read the title essay of Euclid’s Orchard, you will recognize my effort and where it took me—and I learned enough to know that I will never understand that part of my son’s life. But we do have things in common, beyond the obvious (I am his mother after all), and he is wonderful company.

Some mornings I wake to photos and short videos from Paris. It is evening there when I look at what my grandchildren did that morning. I am in the moment and they are asleep. I watch them ride carousels in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and time stands as still as it can while children laugh and fly through the air in a small metal plane. I watch them race through the Louvre, eager to see everything. In the halls of great art, they are children from the new world. The winged Nike of Samothrace was a particular pleasure for them. Created circa 190 BCE, possibly to commemorate a sea battle, she stands on the prow of a ship of Lartos marble, her clothing of translucent Parian marble so airy that you half-expect to hear it swish. My grandchildren rush to the winged Nike and I watch them, 8000 kms away, earlier on the same day that they went to the Louvre with their mum, a life-time away, the sound of my granddaughter’s voice so clear. “That statue is like a lot of years old,” she says, as her brother stands at the base, his shirt on backwards.

I think of Guy Davenport’s beautiful poem for Marianne Moore, “At Marathon”, and its stunning conclusion:

Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?

Such as coming from Edmonton as children to race down to the Winged Victory of Samothrace. What is time?

if a place will have us


In 1980, we bought our 8.5 acres on the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula and the next year we began to build our house. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere. When I’m away from home, this is the place I dream of. In another bed at night, I wake and try to orient myself by the windows of the room I have slept in since 1982. I feel out of place in other beds.

This peninsula and surroundings, from Howe Sound extending up Jervis Inlet, is shíshálh swiya, the original territory of the shíshálh Nation. There are times when the past seems very close. When we walked to Francis Point the other day after our (careful) errands, I saw what anyone ever sitting on the rocks there saw. Islands in the soft distance, waves, the dappled leaves of Erythronium  oregonum emerging out of the moss. Thirty years ago, an elderly man who’d grown up in this area took me for a walk nearby and showed me the remnants of rock fish traps and cedar trees scarred by bark removal, a cultural practice done carefully and well, and the tree’s huge size a testament to that. The people never left. I count some of them among my friends. I am grateful to live here. These days, as the world experiences the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic, I am even more grateful. Apart from brief trips for groceries, last week’s followed by that walk, we’ve been home. We are surrounded by trees and sky and earth. I feel cradled by it somehow, if that doesn’t seem too sentimental.

As the news is filled by numbers of infections and deaths, of measures being taken to control COVID-19, I think of the importance of staying in place, if a place will have us. As the future increasingly seems troubled and uncertain, I am glad to see the old highway signs being replaced,  reminding us of everything this place is and has been. Knowing original names can lead us back in time as well as forward. We’re here, sure, but something older and deeper never went away. Daylighting those names feels perfectly timed to remind us exactly where we are in a way that takes another kind of understanding, beyond the real estate descriptions and tourist brochure enticements. When I pull of of my driveway and turn left, I know I am 6 kilometers from a place that has two names, one rooted in the history of a man named Thomas Egbert Earl, a WW1 veteran who settled on the cove in 1918, and one that reaches back, back, into ancient time.

redux (other Marches): nostos

Note: I was looking back to see something about weather three years ago and I found this post. Although we are lucky to have enough space to wander a bit during these days of sheltering in place, I do think of earlier springs, other places that have also been shelters. This is from March, 2017:


looking west

I have been thinking about nostalgia. Some days it seems to be my lodestar. I know from my time as a student of classical literature that the term is not truly Greek, though one its roots are Greek words: νόστος, home or the return home, and άλγος, longing. The words were yoked in the 17th century by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, and the compounded word, nostalgia, was considered a curable disease. (Think leeches and opium.)

We were recently on Vancouver Island for five nights, three of them near Tofino and two of them in Victoria. Both places were part of my formative years. Victoria was where I spent most of my life until I met John in 1979. I’d been away a lot — Greece, Ireland, England… — but I always returned to Victoria. My parents lived there. I’d gone to high school and university there. (My family moved every two years during my young childhood — my father was in the navy — so we spent time in Halifax as well as Matsqui, in the Fraser Valley. But again, we always returned to Victoria until my father retired from the navy in 1969 and went to work at the Esquimalt dockyards.) And the Pacific Rim was a place I first camped with friends in (I think) 1971 or 2, returning as often as I could for years afterwards. I remember the road from Port Alberni before it was paved and once having to hitchhike out from Long Beach to Port Alberni and getting rides with loggers.

John also spent time on the Pacific Rim in his early 20s. His girlfriend then was from California and was a surfer. He’d gone with her to Long Beach for a surfing competition in the late 1960s, camping on the beach in a Volkswagen van. So he carries his own passel of memories when we walk down trails to beaches grey with mist or watch surfers paddling between the swells. In his, a girl with blond hair is carrying her surfboard down to the water. He remembers how everything was damp, even in good weather.

This time, in both Victoria and on the beaches of the Pacific Rim, we talked about the past. For our generations (I add the plural because we’re 7 years apart, which is nothing now, but in the years I’m referring to, 7 years was a gap wider than it seems today), it was possible to live without much stuff. I didn’t have a camera until I was in my twenties. No cell phone, no computer, no easy access to any kind of social media. Our records are held in memory. A server in one of the places we had lunch in Tofino said she often wished there were more photographs of those years — her boyfriend’s mum had lived in a cabin at Chesterman Beach, she said, for 25 dollars a month — and it’s true. I have none. John has none. We didn’t record our meals for Facebook or Twitter. The driftwood shelters? I don’t have a single photograph. The time I camped with my dog in November and on the one clear day saw whales from Florencia Bay with the binoculars my father lent me? No photographs.

In a way it’s the same with Victoria and other places of my childhood. My father had a small Brownie camera and we have some snaps of our family lined up down the front stairs, dressed for church. We have a handful of slides from later years, mostly of my brothers and me standing against old wagons or plaster dinosaurs on camping trips to Alberta. None of us collecting bark at Clover Point for the little wood-heater in the kitchen. None of the mornings on Salt Spring Island when my father cooked buckwheat pancakes in a old black skillet. Or the falls at Englishman River where we went for camping trips over long summer weekends. Or Bamberton. Yet my memory of these times is as clear as sunlight. Or is it? There must have been shadows too. But walking the route I took to school in grades one and two or passing the house on Moss Street where my best friend lived, I never see a single one.

Nostos is also about the story of returning home. In the Odyssey, Odysseus keeps true to Ithaka. It’s his compass point, his end-point, his journeys-end, his haven.

                              Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home.

(from Book Five, 218-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

He tells his story again and again, to anyone who will listen, faithful to the place and his beloved who waits for him. Yet places for which one feels nostalgia are not always home. There’s not always the possibility of home-coming. When I walked out on the breakwater at Ogden Point the other day, what I felt was a homesickness, yes, but as often as I looked at pretty houses in James Bay, even the ones with For Sale signs on them, I knew there was no way to return, not even with leeches or opium. Or the long beaches, lit by fires and stars. Yet I keep returning, wanting something of who I was when I first knew them.