the table was waiting

•March 22, 2017 • 4 Comments

We’d planned to take the second (7:00 a.m.) or third (8:20 a.m.) ferry but then it was 3:30.

–Are you awake?


— If we can get ready to go in 40 minutes, we could get the 6:20.

Fed the cat. (Our neighbour is kindly coming to feed her for the days we’re away.) Filled the cooler and headed down the dark highway, watchful for elk and deer. Just one coyote loping across the road and into the trees.

Two ferries, a stop at Coombs for bread, smoked salmon pate, and other treats, and we were nearing the Pacific Rim. Crossing Lost Shoe Creek #1 and then Lost Shoe Creek #2 (a pair!) and we could see the mist rising from the ocean as we turned towards Tofino.

It’s a long drive to Long Beach, almost as long for us as travelling to Europe (though as the crow flies it’s much closer…). At 4, we checked into our suite at the Pacific Sands Resort where this table was waiting for us.


I was young on these beaches. I know I’ve written about this before (an essay, “Undressing the Mountains”, in Red Laredo Boots, remembers sleeping on the beach in the 1970s and walking its long lengths with a shell tied to my ankle…) but every time I come to the west coast of Vancouver Island, I’m returned to those times. I look out at the shining sea and see everything I saw then. The years vanish and I’m that young woman with a bruised heart and her cells porous for poetry.

We’ve had a couple of walks, picked up sand dollars and a huge mussel shell to sit on the table and hold the smell of the sea. Tomorrow we’ll walk on our favourite trails and eat something delicious at Wolf in the Fog. The whales are passing on their way to Alaska and the ravens are bickering in the trees just beyond where I’m sitting. The fire is warm and the surf is loud. If I have a bucket list, it would include learning to surf. When I see people head into the water with their boards, I want to join them. Is it too late? Can a woman in her sixties put on a wetsuit and learn to balance on a curve of wave?

In the meantime, this is what I see from my chair by the big window.

the view

” …they have also left us with an oud in our hands”

•March 21, 2017 • 2 Comments

For World Poetry Day, I celebrate  Nazik Al-Malaika. She was born in Iraq in 1923 and died in Cairo in 2007. She is recognized as one of the Arabic world’s foremost poets. She broke from classical tradition to explore free verse though she returned to classical forms later in life. Her work is musical and beautiful, influenced by her study of music, specifically the oud.

Why do we fear words
when they have been rose-palmed hands,
fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks,
and glasses of heartening wine
sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips?
Why do we fear words
when among them are words like unseen bells,
whose echo announces in our troubled lives
the coming of a period of enchanted dawn,
drenched in love, and life?
So why do we fear words?
We took pleasure in silence.
We became still, fearing the secret might part our lips.
We thought that in words laid an unseen ghoul,
crouching, hidden by the letters from the ear of time.
We shackled the thirsty letters,
we forbade them to spread the night for us
as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams,
and warm cups.
Why do we fear words?
Among them are words of smooth sweetness
whose letters have drawn the warmth of hope from two lips,
and others that, rejoicing in pleasure
have waded through momentary joy with two drunk eyes.
Words, poetry, tenderly
turned to caress our cheeks, sounds
that, asleep in their echo, lies a rich color, a rustling,
a secret ardor, a hidden longing.
Why do we fear words?
If their thorns have once wounded us,
then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks
and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
If their letters have pierced us
and their face turned callously from us
Then they have also left us with an oud in our hands
And tomorrow they will shower us with life.
So pour us two full glasses of words!
Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words,
high, with ivy trailing from its letters.
We will nourish its buds with poetry
and water its flowers with words.
We will build a balcony for the timid rose
with pillars made of words,
and a cool hall flooded with deep shade,
guarded by words.
Our life we have dedicated as a prayer
To whom will we pray . . . but to words?

–Nazik Al-Malaika, translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Carol Johnson


“bright in the fertile fields”

•March 19, 2017 • 2 Comments

look up.JPG

It’s come. more or less on schedule. When I went out this morning, I heard the first varied thrush of the year, whistling in our woods. Yesterday on our walk along one flank of the mountain,  we saw the first salmonberry blossoms and the orchids (Northwestern twayblades) are up along the trail. Just now I went out into the vegetable garden, thinking to do some work, and realized I need gloves. It’s not warm when the sun goes behind clouds but the light is spring light and there are birds everywhere. Robins hopping on the grass and listening, in the way they do. Chickadees and the single nuthatch that travels with them at the feeder, taking turns, the others waiting in the forsythia. Which is blooming! (Just at the tips of the branches. This is a spray I cut the other day for a dinner party and the buds have relaxed in the warm kitchen.)


One of spring’s truest poets is Ovid. This morning I got out my copy of the Metamorphoses, the Rolf Humphries translation (and I’m sure there are more recent ones but this is one I read as a university student in Peter Smith’s class at UVic in, oh, around 1974), and read the beautiful passage on spring:

Notice the year’s four seasons: they resemble
Our lives. Spring is a nursling, a young child,
Tender and young, and grass shines and buds
Swell with new life, not yet full-grown nor hardy,
But promising much of husbandmen, with blossom
Bright in the fertile fields.

So the garlic, not full-grown, but promising (and it’s Metechi in this bed, a variety from Georgia, by way of Lytton) —


— and the rhubarb,


and this little crocus, escaped from a border and happy in the green moss:

free spirit.JPG

The garden’s guardian, an elk skull found up the mountain a few years ago, was covered in snow three weeks ago but now is ready for work.


the deck in summer

•March 16, 2017 • 2 Comments

Yesterday we had some unexpected sunshine and I went out to tidy the kitchen herbs. They overwinter on a trolley (in its former life, it was a barbecue…). New shoots of tarragon, sprouts of chives, lush rosemary, even some miners lettuce sprouting in a planter below.

herbs (1).JPG

I swept the deck and thought how different it looks in winter, the bare branches of wisteria, grape, and clematis tangled overhead.

dreaming of summer.JPG

In summer, there are long swags of purple blossoms, clusters of grapes, tree frogs, the occasional raccoon. Yet looking at the deck, I could populate it immediately with summer. It’s been the site of many long family dinners, parties that went into the wee hours, extemporaneous poetry readings, songs. A month ago, it seemed that summer would never come. Our area had the coldest winter in decades, one snowfall after another. Yet the honeysuckle is in new leaf and in a couple of weeks we’ll be picking miners lettuce for our salads! How reliable the earth’s timetable is. For now.

Last week I approved the copyedits of my essay, “Love Song”, which will appear in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book. While I thought about commas and em-dashes, I also remembered writing the essay in November when I was awaiting test results. It seemed I might have metastatic cancer. But now it seems I don’t. And I’m hugely grateful. I wrote the essay as a way of gathering up my hope into a single day of memory. All the summer meals and swims and picnics, all the children (and their children) collected at the table. All the salmon from the barbecue (both the herb trolley and its successor!), all the skewers of lamb, the bowls of spot prawns with butter and lemon. And the salads! Here’s the deck in summer and here’s a little passage from the essay. This morning it’s not sunny but if I close my eyes, I can bring it all to mind.

summer deck

The table is set; time to come up from the lake. Old songs play on the stereo, the ones we’ve sung all these years in summer. You can’t hurry love. Come along, your bodies cool, duck-itchy, the baby fat turned to muscle, your own children in your arms as you scatter damp towels and hang bathing suits on the railings.

vancouver swingers

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Under a leaden grey sky, we walked with the grandbabies and helped Kelly slide down some wet slides, negotiate some slippery ramps, and then we had the pleasure of watching both children on the swings. When I was a child, I remember quite clearly that a boy in our neighbourhood pumped himself so high that the swing went over the top of the metal scaffolding. The boy fell to earth with a thump and (I think) broke his arm on impact. The actual nature of swings hasn’t evolved much — still those thick chains, the seats made of rubber or wood. But the ground underneath, once paved with asphalt or else dirt, is now covered with soft padded carpet.


Henry loved the feel of the metal part of the swing in his mouth, gnawing and sucking. Thank goodness it wasn’t cold. (That old Canadian story…) And there was time to look out on False Creek where geese swam, the little ferries crossed back and forth, and the moments counting down until we return home to the Sechelt peninsula tomorrow and these guys fly back to Edmonton on Wednesday.

me and henry2

a daylight savings special

•March 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Celebrate the light! I’m offering my three novellas for the grand price of $45, postage included. Visit my contact page if you’re interested in emailing me with an order. (I can accept cheques or payment via Interac. Not set up for Paypal. Sorry….)


If you go to the menu on the right-hand side of the page and click on Books, you can read reveiws of these novellas.

“all those waters changing as we changed…”

•March 6, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I had a difficult relationship with my father. I loved him and I believe he loved me. But we couldn’t talk to one another easily. He found me remote, as I found him. He taught me some important things, though, and I miss him. (He died in 2009.) I talk to him more and more, to try to limn the dimensions of our relationship — I always thought it kind of one-dimensional but realize now it was complicated and even nuanced. In my forthcoming book, Euclid’ Orchard, there is an essay about this: “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”. In the essay I talk to my father in a way we were never able to talk in the years I lived with my parents, and afterwards, when he and my mother visited us here. I tell him how I wish things had been different. It might be too bitter. But it’s honest, if that matters.

The old-fashioned knots you’d tied long ago wouldn’t loosen enough to let you take ease in a chair on the deck of a cabin. And by then the fish knife had gone to my son. Herakleitos on the Yalakom River, on the Cowichan, on the far-seeing MacKenzie where you were young, the Red Deer, all those waters changing as we changed—and were ever the same. There were roads that led to them, and away.

I think about my father a lot now that I see my sons immersed in fatherhood. They are tender and loving with their children.


My father was born in 1926 to very poor immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner and he was illiterate. No bedtime stories. My father grew up not knowing anything about his parents’ parents, their extended families. I explore this in other essays in the collection, trying to map his emotional geography, which is now my geography, my maps scribbled with the cryptic markings of love and loneliness. Of regret and sorrow.

We spent the weekend in Vancouver, with our son Brendan, daughter-in-law Cristen, and their two young children. Our daughter — Kelly’s cherished Aunty Angie (“My Auntie Angie.”) — joined us for part of the time. We ate great meals and laughed a lot and had some outings that I know will be happy memories for Kelly. (Blue frogs at the Aquarium! Big fish! The soft pink feet on the ducks in the tropical conservatory…) Kelly has plans for May when we will visit her family in Edmonton and she is thrilled that her Auntie Manon, Uncle Forrest, and cousin Arthur will be there at the same time. (We are all going to build a new porch for Brendan and Cristen’s house.) She is very excited at the prospect of sharing the double stroller with Arthur. And of throwing stones into Mill Creek with him. By then Henry might be able to throw a stone too. Over the weekend, he was happy to lie on the floor with his Grandpa John, pushing toys back and forth.


The road that leads to Edmonton from the west coast is one my family drove many summers to visit our grandparents who lived in Beverly, in a small plain house on a quiet street near the river. It was a river my father remembered in his later years — the smell of poplars coming into leaf, its dangers at spring melt. And the Red Deer, that flowed past his family’s first home in Drumheller. All the rivers of our shared geography, unchanged, and constantly changing. Although my father never read Herakleitos, I found him in Guy Davenport’s elegant translation. I found him over and over, changed and unchanged. “The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.” It never was. But where else can I look?