my shallow eyes of water

•October 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Bits of my life
All glazed with water
tiles farewell
My shallow eyes of water

This is a little fragment (courtesy of Google translate, as I was unable to find the lyrics in English) of the fadista Joana Amendoeira’s song, “Fado dos Azulejos”. Fado and azulejos are what I think of when I remember Lisbon. We spent a week there, with several more weeks in other parts of Portugal, the winter before last. We had a little apartment in the Alfama and this was the view from one window:

the view.jpg

We’d come to Lisbon from Evora and in Evora we’d entered churches through dark wooden doors to find rooms of light. The azulejos — the word means “tiles” but the azulejos are more an element of culture, a way of interpreting space, of extending it and notating it — became the way we saw interiors in Portugal. In churches and palaces, azulejos were used the way tapestries and other elaborate textiles decorate such places in other countries. Even the altars are covered with azulejos rather than linen finely embroidered with gold. They have a long history, arriving in Portugal 5 centuries ago as part of the Arab presence on the Iberian peninsula. They seem to have come from Seville, though I suspect there are as many opinions on this as there are styles of azulejos. The word sounds like its root is “blue”, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s from the Arabic, “al zulaycha” or “zellige”, meaning little polished stone. A means of making pattern, like mosaics of marble. I read somewhere that they represent a rejection of emptiness and those spaces  with their vaulted ceilings — the churches in Faro and Evora and Lisbon and Sintra — are anything but empty. You could see how the artistic tradition developed as you moved from a 16th c. church to a late 17th c. one, particularly if the work was done by Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes or his son Policarpo; the figures in their azulejos are so shapely and multi-dimensional, the perspective sophisticated and the faces beautifully detailed.

And the blue and white azulejos were sort of late to the game, in any case, becoming popular in the 17th century with the arrival of Delft tiles — and those influenced by Chinese porcelains and Indian chintzs. I loved the practicality of azulejos, the way they moderate temperature, reflecting heat in summer and humidity in winter. Our apartment had a series of clothes lines running horizontally just below the window facing the azulejos; hanging out a load of our well-travelled laundry, I was surprised at how quickly it dried in reflected sunlight.

Yesterday we saw a film in Gibsons as part of the Sunshine Coast Art Crawl, Montrealer Luid de Moura Sobral’s Azulejos: Une Utopie Ceramique. It was fascinating and made me wistful for a place shaped in such a way. Where walking, you pass a window with the light glancing off a tile:

in Sintra.jpg

Or you pause on a stone wall and notice how the lower part of the wall is faced with azulejos:


It was too dark in the Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons to make notes while I watched the film but I did try to scrawl something in my notebook because it surprised me, coming as it did after a series of images of spaces defined by azulejos: the Lisbon underground, benches in Montreal, churches in Evora, a monastery in Brazil. I don’t remember the first part of the sentence but what I scribbled was: “utopia never properly theorized.” I remembered the doors opening and closing on those rooms of light, the stacks of painted and glazed plates on the lane out our hotel window in Evora (dinner plates I regret not buying though I did stash two small ones in my suitcase, wrapped in an unnecessary warm sweater), and the windows of antique stores with tiles from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, regal in their isolation, and I wondered what theory could possible hold such beauty?



•October 20, 2016 • 2 Comments

I’d stayed with my parents in Victoria the night before my wedding and I hadn’t packed anything warm. So on that cool morning, I put on the dress — white cotton with a laced bodice, circa 1979 (which it was) — and brushed my hair, arranged the wreathe of yellow roses my mum’s friend made for me, and pulled on the old Cowichan sweater I’d left in my parents’ basement. Then I got into the Mazda pickup with my dad and we headed out for the 11’o’clock ceremony performed by a Unitarian minister wearing a Welsh fisherman’s smock at an old heritage house turned restaurant near Sidney. My groom was waiting in his Harris tweed jacket and wide corduroy pants. A tie! A belt with a big hand-forged buckle. There’s only one photograph of us because my brother said he’d take pictures and for some reason they didn’t work out. But I’ve never forgotten the day. Or where it led.


I still have the dress, tucked away in a trunk. And that belt is still around. We have accumulated so much over the years, 37 of them. A houseful of furniture, thousands of books, 3 children, two daughters-in-law, 3 grandchildren. A houseful of memories, of sunlight and shadows (because there have been plenty of those), meals at the long pine table with friends and family members, some of them still with us and some of them gone to spirit. Last night I dreamed of my mother, that I wondered where she was and my daughter told me she’d left her at a restaurant because my mum said she loved to sit in the dusk and think about her life. My mother died in 2010 and often when I sit in the dusk, I think of her. One day my daughter will wonder where I am and maybe my granddaughter will tell her a similar story. We never leave, do we? We are always part of a story, if only someone cares to tell it.

Tonight we will sit at the table and eat duck breasts with a sauce of port and dried cherries (and maybe some rhubarb; I’m thinking that the two stalks John cut the other day would go well with the cherries). There will be Savoy cabbage from the garden and a salad of the last arugula. To drink? A gorgeous Desert Hills Gamay in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my 50th birthday, 11 years ago.


The glasses are still intact, though so much of the world has broken and frayed. Not us, not yet, and I look forward to the first sip of the Gamay, late summer distilled in a high-shouldered bottle, the first taste of the duck in its silky sauce, while the dusk gathers around us and the years contain our lives, the stories we still remember and tell.

Mendel’s tools

•October 19, 2016 • 2 Comments

Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Tool Box”; it’s included in my book, Red Laredo Boots. In it, I looked at a box John’s grandfather had made in England for John’s father Ben when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. John’s grandfather had been a cabinet maker and he filled the box with handtools, little tins of grease, and he’d even made a level; I think he imagined his gift to his son would be very useful for a life in a new country. The box became a catchall for the things a family accumulates and when I examined the tools within it, I realized that some of the chisels had been used to pry open paint cans. Was the level ever used? Probably not. I keep it on my desk now and take it in my hands from time to time for the comfort of its shape. We built our own house and I learned to use a big level when we were pouring footings and raising walls. It gives me pleasure to see that my desk is level — that means my readings all those years ago were accurate and that our building is sound.


I’m working on an essay now about Gregor Mendel, the Moravian-Silesian monk and gardener who is considered to be the father of modern genetics. This essay was actually born out of another, “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long sprawling piece about love, coyote music, quilts, mathematics, orchards, and genetics. And I couldn’t seem to knit the parts about genetics in neatly enough. So out they came and I’ve been working on them in a different essay. I realized that the thing that really interested me when I visited St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, in the Czech Republic, where Mendel was a member of the Augustinian order, was the case of his pruning tools.


They are so elegant, with their brass and wooden fittings. And they were obviously cared for. They tell me something about the man who used them — his patience, his diligence. So I’m looking at them, letting them talk to me, and we’ll see what happens. I brought peas back from the little shop in the museum at the Abbey of St. Thomas and kept notes (careless haphazard notes) on growing them in my garden over four years. That will be part of the essay too.

Most of all, I’m hoping that some of Mendel’s patience and care rubs off on me. I think of our pruning tools — one broken saw and one usable one; four pairs of secateurs, one pair held together with black electrical tape and one pair (I’m sorry to admit) hanging out on the fence by the garden where I was using them yesterday to cut down the fennel. A machete we found in our woods, which had probably been left by a salal cutter decades ago. John takes much better care of them than I do. He almost always returns them to their hooks in the workshop. But I get sidetracked or forgetful and leave them out in the weather.

In the top left corner of the photograph of Mendel’s tools, you can see a whetstone. It’s never occurred to me that our pruning tools should be sharpened regularly. I’ve occasionally used a knife sharpener on the edge of one pair of secateurs. Mostly I just struggle when cutting a difficult branch. Is it too late for me to learn new habits? I hope not. I remember how my father kept his hunting knives well-sharpened. In “The Tool Box”, there’s a memory of the oil he used, “a delicious smelling oil that scented the whole basement….I remember sitting on the basement stairs, listening to the blades being ground across the stone, and breathing in the heady oil.” It makes me wonder why some things — hair colour, body shape — are inherited but not the useful things, like the need to keep tools clean and honed.

Going Bush

•October 13, 2016 • Leave a Comment

going bush.jpg

There’s something so satisfying about a single-edition essay. Notting Hill Editions does them. And so does Sylph Editions, in the form of the Cahier Series, published jointly with the Centre for Writers & Translators of the American University of Paris. The Series includes all kinds of interesting writing and I treasure the ones I have on my shelves.

I recently ordered Kirsty Gunn’s Going Bush, number 27 in the Cahier Series. (Her My Katherine Mansfield Project was published by Notting Hill Editions a year or two ago.) I’ve read her novellas and her wonderful rambling novel The Big Music, inspired and structured around the classical highland bagpipe pibroch. She is such an original writer, following her own beautiful sentences as they explore place and memory and carry within their syntax a lyrical and haunting music.

Going Bush is a memory of a particular kind of New Zealand bush. Not park, not fields, not farmland, not mythical forest. Bush.

That growth was everywhere, dense through my childhood and close and rotting — smelling, damp underfoot where the light couldn’t reach the matted canopy of what we called, then, ‘natives’ — those trees indigenous to New Zealand, the Matai and the Totara and the Miro as I know to call them now — only, ‘natives’ we said then, because they were not oak or pine or ash.

And it’s a memory of a kind of realization, occurring around puberty, when your body often seems to betray you, with its changes and odours, its mysteries, that a place can be a solace, even in its darkness and its stagnant water. A place of refuge for a girl alone in  her otherness in social and domestic life, in this case a family picnic when cousins turn out to be hostile and cruel.

Though the undergrowth was thick and dark, it wanted her to be inside it, wanted her to run faster and faster to find its secret river, to touch her and hold her and whisper and call, along with the bellbirds and the tuis and fantails she could hear, somewhere up there, in the dark trees, flitting in and out of the dark branches like ghost birds and spirits of ancestors with their calls like the sound of bells: Come to me, come to me, come to me.

Going Bush is a gorgeous edition, with a mixed-media work by Kirsty Gunn’s sister Merran Gunn reproduced throughout to offer a visual correlative to the text. It resembles the river the narrator is drawn to, that offers her mud and weeds and cool water:

‘Use me,’ the river bank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood like there a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her — and she had let them go.


•October 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

When I woke this morning, I couldn’t remember where I was. Five nights in Edmonton, then home last night in the dark. There wasn’t the glow of streetlights coming in through the bedroom window but there was something. And looking out, I saw stars. The sky was glittering. And I knew by the position of the moon and the darkness that held the stars that I was home.

Five days of walking with my granddaughter, listening to her talk (have you heard a two year old pronounce “legislature”?), of holding my new grandson, a baby with large dark startled eyes


and long fingers. Days of cinnamon buns (my granddaughter’s favourite treat: we walked to Wild Earth Bakery three times and Café Bicyclette once) and bison on the side of the highway


and a stop at the world’s largest sausage (12.8 meters high, in case you were wondering):


Snow (winter arrived on Friday in Edmonton, the roads white and the elms in Strathcona soft with new flakes), and magpies everywhere, and many many stories, told or read aloud. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Apply Dappley, page 81 from Over the Hills and Far Away (“It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.” Again, Grandma, again! Page 81!). Boat building with wooden blocks, though when Auntie Angie suggested adding an aqueduct, there was resistance. No aqueduct, just a boat.

boat building.jpg

But then as we were driving to the airport in our rental car, a video came ten minutes after we’d said goodbye. A small girl with wooden blocks, asking her mum to help her build an aqueduct.

Home is windblown and green. No snow. Last night as we drove down the last hill before we reached our house, a buck walked out of the trees. No magpies. Woodsmoke from our fire this morning. Looking down from the plane as we left Edmonton, I saw the fields all tawny and gold and the ploughed ones black with a dusting of snow. It could be a quilt, I thought. Something to stitch the distance between us and them, to keep alive the feel of their skin, as soft as velvet, to warm us when our own winter arrives.

Driving to Mundare….

•October 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

…along the Yellowhead, past Elk Island Park where bison were grazing on both sides of the road, the fields were cold with the first snow. I wanted to to see the derelict Spaca Moskalyk Orthodox church on a range road near Mundare.


I’d been reading about the church, knew that it had been scheduled to be deconsecrated by ritual burning because it was considered to be too far gone to  restore. But there it was, in its field of graves, with a new foundation –cruciform, the traditional shape of these buildings — waiting alongside. We couldn’t enter the stenciled door


but I knew from reading that the interior is still lovely, a blue starry ceiling and stenciled wainscotting, spiraling stairs leading to a choir loft. I thought of the families coming to the church in the 1980s and 30s, maybe even the family from this abandoned farm —


-and I thought of my grandfather, after his arrival in Canada in the early 20th c., and wondered if he’d have been comforted by the sight of a familiar silver dome. Not that he would have come to this particular church but there are others on the prairies, the sound of an old liturgy still echoing.


•October 4, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The other day I burned a huge basket of papers and old journals and unnecessary clutter in the spirit of organizing my study. My writing life. I’m still sorting and trying to file what’s left, a long and kind of interesting process. There was a lot I’d forgotten. There are regrets — several file folders of letters from people I no longer consider friends. And sad moments, or hours really, re-reading letters from friends who’ve died. I thought as I sorted and read that it’s another way of seeing the self, an accumulation of ideas, news of the world, gossip, tales of rejection or triumph (not many of those!), bitter observations (and joyous ones too), and hopes, dreams, plans. And I also thought that an archive like this one reduces the self. Anyone going through my filing cabinet would see the folders containing the business correspondence relative to the books I’ve written, the letters from readers (each one cherished), the folders of rejection letters (maybe I should have burned them but somehow their stern syntax prevented me from even giving them more than a cursory re-read), the contracts with their clauses and subclauses, and a sheaf of reviews. What isn’t there? What was never committed to paper. The dreamy days by the woodstove, working on a quilt. The thinking, and the quality of that thinking. (Somehow I could never keep a regular journal, not after my early twenties, and those ones were so obsessively indulgent, a minute-by-minute pulse taking, a litany of angst.) And the world went by, practically unnoticed, with all its beauty and its difficulty, its shifts and pleasures, while I wondered if anyone would ever love me. What was never committed to paper? The walking, the observing, the deep sense of how my particular corner of the landscape lives and rests (the architecture of trees in winter, the sound of owls in February as they attract one another, the sound of coyotes mating, frogs making their urgent music) and returns to life with the first swellings of the willows, the morning when we wake to hear Swainson’s thrushes.The world going by.What’s known in the mind, the heart, and not on paper.

I think I am justifying the fire because I wonder if it was the right thing to do.

after the fire.jpg

This morning I went out to the garden and saw the small circle of stones with its bed of black ash. A few fragments of paper, a few words left. But when I looked closer, I could see that the words were fragments of lines from a bibliography for a paper written in 1974. We’d been asked in a writing class to explore our influences. I was 19. How did I know my influences? I see from the bibliography that I must have mentioned Jung. (As if.) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Jerome somebody. Maybe Jerome Rothenberg? I must’ve discovered Technicians of the Sacred about that time. If I’d kept a journal of that reading, I’d be interested now. I doubt that I’d have burned those pages.