where my limbs are in space

•March 16, 2018 • 2 Comments


I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béalSometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb





“…will the voices come to us again?”

•March 12, 2018 • 8 Comments

Euclid’s arrival at Mona’s place

This morning the B.C. Book Prizes announced the 2018 shortlists and I am so thrilled to see Euclid’s Orchard nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Awarded to the author(s) of the best original work of literary non-fiction. Topics such as philosophy, politics, biography, history, belles lettres, etc. Quality of research and writing along with insight and originality are major considerations in the judging of this prize. (from the Book Prizes website)

I’ve always admired Hubert Evans. When John and I first moved to the Sechelt Peninsula, Hubert was still alive, living at Roberts Creek. I met him once and told him how much I loved his Mist on the River and O Time In Your Flight. In the way that these things happen in small places, his granddaughter, a nurse at the hospital in Sechelt, helped to deliver my son Brendan. Brendan, for those of you who’ve read Euclid’s Orchard, is the mathematician who inspired the title essay. When my publisher Mona Fertig and I were making decisions on images for the book, I had to call on Brendan several times to help with something I had in mind: a photograph of a tree in our old orchard with Euclid’s algorithm hanging over it like mist. Another layer of meaning. I remember my relief when Mona sent a photograph of the spread for that essay, relief that both Brendan’s work and the wonderful eye of designer Setareh Ashrafologhalai helped to bring my vision alive.


My other children are in these pages too. Son Forrest, a historian, helped with the work of decoding a whole complicated knot of information about a squatters’ community in Drumheller in the early 20th century, the first place my grandmother lived when she came to Canada. My daughter Angelica is always the first person I ask about classical texts (she has an M.A. in Greek and Roman Studies and can read Latin with an impressive fluency). And my husband John, well, he makes so much of what I do possible. The beautiful young women who are the mothers of my grandchildren are also in these pages, entering the family story with grace and humour.

I dedicated Euclid’s Orchard to those grandchildren and my late parents. They bracket my specific time on earth and the stories in my book are theirs. Ours. No one knows when they might need to know something and when I was undergoing medical tests in the fall of 2016, I needed to know how the pieces of particular family stories fit together, both within our own ecology and also the larger picture. How a squatters’ community on the banks of the Red Deer River echoed much of the immigrant experience, the languages of loss and grief and deprivation. How a child dazzled by patterns and numbers might grow up in a family of dreamers and poets and how a mother might try to parse the meaning of those patterns late in life. How letters might be written to the dead.

Migratory, like monarchs, we find our own urgent way to a place where the sun and earth greet us, give us rest.We find our place among wild plants on a roadside, we hear beetles and the lazy drone of bees. If we sit on the grass and let the dry wind ruffle our hair, will the voices come to us again? — from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”

“…an irrational tenderness”

•March 8, 2018 • 2 Comments

from underground

“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.”  — Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse

the season is late

•March 5, 2018 • Leave a Comment

by the door

I don’t keep really careful or accurate weather records but I do remember that the earliest I’ve seen salmonberry blossoms is February 6. (That was in 2005.) I’ve been watching for them this year but haven’t yet seen a single one. I’ve just come in from a little walk around the trees and garden and it looks like winter. There was even a tiny bit of ice on the bathtub pool where the tree frogs lay their eggs. On Saturday I was digging in the vegetable garden and I heard a tree frog chirping somewhere nearby. It’s too early, I told it. Stay hidden. The snow is still low on the mountain.

But on Saturday when I forked over the compost, there were nests of worms quite close to the surface:


Last week’s full moon is sometimes called the Full Worm Moon and when I was digging the beds I call Wave and Long Eye, the fork unearthed huge worms, doing their work in the cold soil.  So the season is late but there are signs of spring. The 50 daffodils I planted with my granddaughter in November are all up and looking happy in their nests of moss. The fennel is green and feathery. Garlic looks strong. A couple of tiny plants of corn salad. Even a small digging of last year’s red potatoes in Long Eye (and those volunteers to begin with). One morning we’ll wake and the sun will be climbing in a blue sky and we’ll know that the season has truly turned. I found this little chart to show how there is less energy coming from the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation impinging on the land during winter.


Like rivers? Or tides?

But I also like winter for the time inside, for writing (I completed two long essays during the dark season and am moving towards finishing a novella that has been patiently waiting for attention). The stacks of books at the top of the stairs, waiting to be shelved (oh, such optimism), the nearly-completed indigo quilt, tell me I’ve spent the hours productively.

And good things have happened. Are happening. A new grandchild begun, a trip to Ukraine in September dreamed about and in the planning stages. A box of Courtepointes opened in great excitement (and followed by a terrific review in Le Devoir). A wonderful and generous review of Euclid’s Orchard in the Ormsby Review (the online review section of B.C. BookWorld): https://bcbooklook.com/2018/02/27/the-trees-we-cant-see/

This morning our young cat Winter jumped onto my stomach before 6:30, encouraged by the light to ask for his breakfast. So he knows something is in the air. It might be time to check on the salmonberries again. Just in case.

long eye




“That I loved the old wooden walls, the cold toilets, the scent of seaweed when the doors were open?”

•February 28, 2018 • 4 Comments

shirley hall

On Monday, John and I took Angie and Craig out to Point No Point for lunch. This has been a favourite destination of mine since the early 1970s when friends and I would drive out on a Sunday for tea in front of the fire. Miss Packham served the tea and I remember there were little squares and perhaps cucumber sandwiches. It was my dream to stay in one of the little cabins and John and I did just that in 1982. There was a fireplace, a basket with old New Yorkers, a bed that filled a tiny alcove looking out over salal to the sea.

Where does the name come from? I’d wondered but never looked it up. The little brochure on our table at lunch provided the answer and I’ve found it again on the resort website: “The unusual name “Point-No-Point” comes from the original survey of this stretch of coast. It refers to a secondary point of land that is apparent, but doesn’t extend farther than the two primary points on either side of it, commonly referred to as a “point-no-point”.”

The little dining rooms—there are two— hang out over the salal and spruces and you feel that you could drop a stone into the surf below. There are binoculars on each table so that you can determine whether you are seeing seals or kelp. The food is delicious. I had chowder and soda bread and a glass of Quail’s Gate Chasselas-Pinot Blanc-Pinot Gris. After lunch we walked down through a tunnel of green to the rocks by the water.

point no point

As we drove towards Point No Point on the West Coast Road, I asked John to stop the car opposite the Shirley Community Hall. If you’ve read my novella Winter Wren, you might remember the dance at the Hall, circa 1974. I believe that’s the year I went to a dance there and never forgot it. I think there were dances of that sort at community halls all over the province. Long tables filled with food, a raffish band, wild dancing: in short, memorable.

But do we remember? Will we remember? Last year John and I went to a concert at the Cooper’s Green Hall in Halfmoon Bay. It was wonderful, Tube Radio (Boyd Norman, Gary McGuire, Brent Fitzsimmons, Ian McLatchie, and Andrew Bate, joined by Simon Paradis) playing great music and people dancing and talking at tables pushed against the wall. At the intermission, I went to the bathroom and joined the line of women waiting for their turn. A woman in front of me turned around and said, “I’ll be glad when they tear this place down and build a new hall.” I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. And what would I have said? That I loved the old wooden walls, the cold toilets, the scent of seaweed when the doors were open? The dark field you crossed to where you parked your car, lit only by stars? The memory of apple butter being stirred in a huge cauldron at the Apple Festival in front of the hall each autumn?

I’ve been thinking about the old community halls and talking to people about them. In our own small community, we have several. The one in Madeira Park where we’ve attended some of those grand old dances, including a Fishermen’s Homecoming where portraits of the boats were all drawn by school children and hung in fish nets on the walls, weddings, funerals, awards ceremonies, spring bazaars and Christmas craft sales, and if we were gambling types, we’d have gone to the weekly bingo too, and it’s where we vote, where the rowdy community meetings rattle the roof when new bylaws have to be introduced, and where more than a few all-candidates debates have shown that people we like don’t necessarily vote the same way we do! There’s a wonderful old hall in Egmont where we’ve danced at weddings and cried at funerals and where the hippie-stomp dances are legendary, as are the community seafood feasts.

I have in mind a grand gathering of profiles of the halls of British Columbia. I can’t do this myself and even tremble at the thought of trying to organize the project but I think it’s important that we record and commemorate these places before they disappear. As Joni Mitchell so beautifully sang, Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? (And she once sang “Unchained Melody” at a wedding in the Madeira Park Community Hall!) I know that the British Columbia History Magazine did feature community halls in an issue in 2016 but I’d love to see more, know more. If you have a story about a community hall, please contact me (theresakishkan at gmail. com) and if I find there’s critical mass, I will try to take this forward. I have several people on board already. The wonderful Matt Rader wrote of the Dove Creek Hall near Courtenay:

Tell me, who hung the hand-stitched stars on the wall?
Who hung the evening light from the windows?

And that’s it. That’s it exactly. Let’s find out!

green thoughts on Fairfield Road

•February 26, 2018 • 2 Comments

Returning from the Cottage Bakery on Fairfield Road with pastries for breakfast, you see the most beautiful patch of miner’s lettuce by the trunk of a tree, much more lush than the clumps you took down from the mountain a month ago and planted in your garden.

miner's lettuce

Enough for salads, enough for pizza (the succulent leaves hold up well to heat). But (oh, there’s always a but…) you also see the many dogs being walked along Fairfield Road on this bright Monday morning and yes, they are peeing against trees. Even this one.

And you also notice yourself walking ahead, as though the woman that small girl who walked this road more than 5 decades ago has become is still slightly out of reach, walking a little too fast to catch up to.

on fairfield



the view from here

•February 25, 2018 • 2 Comments

the view from here

Yesterday we were having breakfast on Galiano Island with our excellent hosts, Louise Decario and Brian Mitchell. We stayed with them in 2016 when we were guests of the Galiano Island Literary Festival and so it was lovely to join them again after my workshop at the Festival on Friday. This is their view. Brian is a painter and he said he has made many works with the title, “The View From Here 1”, “The View From Here 2”, etc. Yup. I get that.

My husband says sometimes that I need to rein in my nostalgia, as though it was an unruly horse in need of training. But when you ride the ferries from one island to another, there is always the shadow of the ferry you took as a girl to these islands, in childhood with your family to Salt Spring for camping on St. Mary’s Lake, and later, as a young woman, to visit friends who were living in rustic cabins and trying to learn how to farm. Those farms are still there and the ferries, oh yes. I know that there are people who think we need bridges to link the islands but my response is always what it is when the same thing is said about access to the peninsula I live on, also serviced by ferries: “Where did you think you were coming to?”


Yesterday, in order to return to Tsawwassen from Galiano Island, we had to travel to Mayne Island first of all, and then wait for smaller ferries bringing passengers from Saturna Island and another, maybe Pender? Or Salt Spring? You could smoke rising from distant chimneys and yes, some sheep in fields, and cliffs with arbutus clinging to their edges.

We do get glimpses of that old coast and sometimes in the most unexpected places. On Thursday, enroute to Galiano Island, we spent the night in Steveston. We were told that snow geese were on the marsh at Garry Point so we drove out there to see. I only had my tablet camera and so of course everything is blurry but groups kept rising up, calling loudly, and it was wonderful. I remember driving out to this area 30 years ago to see fields white with foraging geese who’d arrived from Wrangell or Siberia.

snow geese

We walked by Scotch Pond for another old coast moment, a group of fish boats waiting out the cold. And there were echoes of both the cannery that was once here and the sheds where the Atagi family had their famous boatworks, the sound of red-winged blackbirds in the reeds.

on Scotch Pond

And this morning? I’m drinking a cup of Galiano Coffee Roasting Company’s delicious Raven Dark (a gift from the Festival, put into our swag bags moments after the beans had been roasted on Friday) and looking out on Fairfield Road. This was the neighbourhood I lived in as a child, my old school just across the road, and the cemetery where my mother used to send us to ride our bikes in the safety of its green lanes under the most beautiful trees. We’re going there later, for a walk. I know we’ll go to Eberts Street to look at our old house, the park where we used to play soft ball in the falling light on summer evenings, near the Dallas Road waterfront where we gathered bark on weekends for the woodheater in our kitchen. Oh, the scent of salt-infused Douglas fir bark, burning hot on a winter day. And the sound of gulls.

So this is me, trying to rein in that unruly nostalgia. Like a headstrong horse, it wants to run, it wants to take the bit in its mouth and race along the old streets, plunging into water, listening, always listening, sniffing the wind and the wood smoke, and quite honestly I’m at a loss as to what to do about it…