the waning buck moon

•July 21, 2019 • 2 Comments

girls and prosecco

I didn’t sleep much last night. I’d wake and realize my entire family was sleeping in this house where we raised our children and to which they’ve returned with their own children or (as with Aunty Angie) on her own, by small plane across Georgia Strait, and I felt so excited at the prospect of swimming today, watching the kids play elaborate games with a soccer ball and badminton racquets and frisbees. Would the huge prime rib roast be enough for all of us? Which Desert Hills red wine would pair with it? Would the kids like the dinosaur pinata we are going to hang from the clothesline later today? I could smell the smoke from our campfire (or firecamp, as Francophone Manon calls it) last evening where we roasted hotdogs wrapped in bannock and ate blueberry and peach galette. Smoky hair on the pillow reminds me of our summer camping trips across the province when my children were small, sleeping in the tent and hearing my family breathing like a single organism.

The waning buck moon was just passing our bedroom when suddenly the entire coyote family began to howl and yip just on the bank below the house. Were they hunting? And (oh!) where was Winter the cat? (Hidden, on the upper deck, listening too.) The sound was a tangle of harmonies, low voice, high voice, and (almost certainly the mother’s) middle vibrato. John and I held hands in the moonlight, while the song briefly followed the moon to the west. stopping as suddenly as it began.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.

—From Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

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then and now: summer postcards

•July 17, 2019 • Leave a Comment

38 summers ago:

cropped

And yesterday:

eddy in ruby lake

On the driveway, 36 years ago (though not in summer):

forrest

And yesterday:

driveway boy

redux: how the sky changes

•July 13, 2019 • 2 Comments

Note: this summer began hot and then cooled down. There’s been enough rain for the campfire ban to be lifted and I know our family, arriving tomorrow and next weekend, will be happy about the prospect of firecamp (as our Francophone Manon calls it), with bannocks cooked on sticks and s’mores and single-malt under the stars…In 2016, I was thinking about weather and skies.

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This time last summer I was yearning for rain. There were dry weeks. Months. Mornings I’d wake to the clear blue sky and I’d begin the watering early, before the sun was up. This time last summer I was picking buckets of tomatoes and beans. The tomatillos were 7 feet tall.

This year the days are mostly grey. I think there might be one tomato just beginning to ripen. Beans are in flower. Tomatillos are perhaps a foot and a half tall — a couple of them. The others — and to be fair, these were only discovered in the compost a week or two ago — are maybe 10 inches.

So the sky changes. The garden is different. In some ways everything is different. With that grey sky comes a series of small dark shadows. Some of them are personal and some of them are global and I’m not sure where the division is right now. Or if there even is one. Or what to do. The clouds cover the sun most days. Their darkness is, I hope, momentary. Transitory. Yesterday when I woke, the sky was grey again. And I didn’t want to stay home, looking out at it, trying to shake its affect. Turning on the news every hour. Let’s get the mid-morning ferry to Powell River, I said, and so we did. I love the ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay. Sometimes we see porpoises, but not yesterday. But the mountains, the water coming down off them in silver falls, a few eagles, isolated cabins on points of land. Groves of arbutus on south-facing islands.

We drove as far as Okeover Inlet, Lucinda Williams on the stereo, to the Laughing Oyster for lunch. It has the feel of the old coast — its deck of weathered wood, its view over water

okeover.jpg

And somehow the clouds were not quite so dark as those at home. (See that little strand of blue, stitching land to land across water?) I felt I could see as far north as anyone could want and the food was wonderful, particularly this lemon semifreddo I had for dessert.

lemon semifreddo

And the ferry home was that old familiar route, past Nelson Island, and through Agamemnon Channel.

Lookin’ out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road

–Lucinda Williams

It was our gravel driveway, the car wheels bringing us home, and they were my tears at bedtime, for all that could not be clear and blue, a sky, a world, a darkness as clouds blocked out the sun.

“heat from a single woodstove”

•July 11, 2019 • 4 Comments

in progress

In the night I was awake, thinking about Blue Portugal, the collection of essays I’ve recently completed. Almost completed, because there is space for one more, to be written after I visit my grandfather’s village in September. Last month I wrote about printing the manuscript and sitting down to edit it. I did that. I made my marks in red pen on the black text and then I entered the changes. Then I moved on to other work. (I’ve begun another novella and mostly I can’t stop thinking about it in that excited way that new work suspends one in, a state of heightened consciousness.)

But last night, awake, because I realized that one essay, “blueprint”, needs something more. But what? I resisted the urge to get up and come down in the dark to see what might be done because my life is very busy right now and I felt I needed to be my bed, under the quilt, beside my sleeping husband. I needed rest, not the excitement of sitting at my desk with the little lamp shining a light on my text. I talked myself back to sleep. But just before I fell into the warm tunnel of sleep, I scribbled a note on paper on my bedside table. An asterix and the words, Look to see what Robert Venturi has to say about his mother’s house. And now, at my desk, I have the book beside me: Mother’s House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, edited by Frederic Schwartz. It’s a book I read with avid curiousity when I was writing the first draft of “blueprint”. How the anticipated function of a building influences its design. I particularly enjoyed Venturi’s own essays in the book, one of them about designing a house for his mother in the early 1960s, the other considering the influence of the building 25 years later.

In the night, it seemed to be that the book might provide a small element for my own essay which I’ve felt needed an epigraph, a sign-post, an architectural note to the reader (and to me). And this morning, here it is, from Venturi’s essay, “Residence in Chestnut Hill”;

These complex combinations do not achieve the easy harmony of a few motifs based on exclusion – based, that is, on “less is more.” Instead, they achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.

He is summing up how he reconciled the compositional elements of the house he designed and built for his mother Vanna, the diagonals, the rectangular spaces, the scale, what architectural critics have called “the casual asymmetries”, the spacial requirements wedded to function and form. And how this passage speaks to me of what I’ve tried to do in an essay that remembers John’s work at a drafting table as he worked on plans for this house, that tries to figure out a blueprint from my grandparents’ papers, and arranges, throughout the work, a small showing of the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.

floor plan

In my essay, I have a section of questions and answers. I asked the questions and John wrote out detailed and (to me) fascinating answers about the process for creating the rudimentary plans for our house.

3. When you look at the plans now, how do you feel? What do you remember about drawing them?

They make me proud a little. I did what I had to do to build a good house.

Our needs were perhaps simpler (and more economically restrained) than Vanna Venturi’s but reading a little of my essay this morning makes me realize that function and form are yoked in the most interesting ways, in architecture as well as writing.

Aesthetically the change in height indoors was a way to break up large open plan spacing, and to differentiate between rooms but still allow easy distribution of heat from a single woodstove, for example.

redux: old postcards from Ruby Lake

•July 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

In anticipation of a family visit later this month, I’m reposting this, from 2017. Some things change and some things never change. Thank goodness.

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We’ve lived near Ruby Lake since 1980. Well, that’s not quite right. We bought our property in 1980, began building our house in 1981, when Forrest was two weeks old (we lived in a tent while building…), and moved in on John’s birthday in 1982, just a month before Brendan was born. But I have to say the property and the lake have been our home territory since we first came to camp on a little bluff on Ruby Lake while looking at land with a real estate agent in early 1980, just a few months after we got married.

I loved swimming in the lake. The water is clean, though some summers the duck itch is irritating. So are the big boats, though the ones with (is it?) open-exhaust systems are not permitted; not permitted, but no one enforces it. And so young men (they are almost always young men) like to tear around the lake, pulling each other on skis and innertubes. The lake doesn’t have a lot of public access so the areas that are accessible are often very busy now. It didn’t used to be that way. When we first came to swim in Ruby Lake, there was a rough track down to the shore at the place where the Regional District has now made a family-friendly park. You walked through hardhack and ocean spray and entered the water amid drifts of wild mint.

To get around the busy nature of the park, where we often couldn’t find a space for our family, we’d take picnics out to one of the small islands in the boat we bought with an income tax return when the kids were small. I wrote about those picnics in “Love Song”, included in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book:

Out in the boat with a picnic to eat on the island in the lake, the island we call White Pine for the little grove on its high point, or else “Going to Greece” for the scent of yarrow and dry grass. I spread out a bamboo mat on the spine of hill and brush ants from my legs while one child dives from the rocks and another swims underwater. The third is learning to start the boat motor, pulling the cord and adjusting the choke.

This morning I was looking for old photographs and came across a few that brought those summers vividly to mind:

postcard 2.jpg

You could sit on that grassy spine of the island and the world was as you wanted it.

postcard 1

There are manzanitas growing near the water and some scrubby pines on the rise and in spring, chocolate lilies and death camas. The scent of yarrow. Snakes, turtles.

For the past few summers, I haven’t done much swimming. By the time the sun is high and it’s hot, the lake is so busy. The prospect of finding a place among the others on the shore is daunting. John goes every day, late afternoon, and has a favourite place away from the beach. He swims off some rocks. But I like to ease into the water (I never learned to dive) and I’d rather stay home.

But last week I thought, Why not swim early? And why not? All winter we swam in the local pool, in part to deal with some side-effects of the health crisis I faced last fall (autoimmune stuff going on in one knee), and I loved being in the water again. Loved the buoyancy, the lightness of being, the opportunity for long meditative thinking as I swam lengths in the warm water. So after the first round of watering, after the tomato plants have been given their drink, and the roses too, we head down to the park. No more hardhack right at the shore. No more mint. But also a kind of blessed quiet. No self-respecting jet-boater is up before 9.  We enter the green water and listen to crows overhead. This morning there were a few people camping in the parking lot. A motorhome. A van. A small pick-up truck with a tent in the back. Two motorcycles with a pup tent between them. As we walked down to the beach, a guy was standing by the water. His entire body was tattooed. He told us how beautiful the lake was, that he was going to go swimming, and that he and his partner had arrived too late for the campsite at Klein Lake so they came back to the park and put their tent up by their bikes. I knew John was remembering his own first glimpse of Ruby Lake, in the early 1970s, with a girlfriend— they also arrived on motorbikes after dark and camped in a clearing off the highway. When they woke the next morning, they saw the lake below them. He never forgot its beauty. That’s why we’re here.

In a few weeks, some of the kids (and one grandson) will arrive for a week. They spend as much time in the water as they can. There will be towels everywhere, and the smell of wet hair. I can’t wait.

How long can a girl dive before her father accords her a perfect score, how many times can a boy circumnavigate the island with the throttle on low? Another practises the dead man’s float. Three years, or six. Drift on a raft under the low-growing spirea and bog laurel, count turtles on logs, crush a few leaves of wild mint in your hands while the years accumulate. Nine years, or twelve. ( from “Love Song”)

postcard 3.jpg

redux: family pictures

•July 6, 2019 • 2 Comments

In July, 2015, I was reading Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, and I was thinking about how writers and visual artists make use of their families in their work. I’m writing something now with that in mind, taking strands of my own personal family history and fictional versions of it, trying to make something both new and true and also fabricated. I don’t know the formula for a truly balanced methodology but that’s not going to stop me…

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“As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”(Sally Mann, writing in the New York Times about the furor around the publication of her book, Immediate Family, in 1992.)

I’ve begun American photographer Sally Mann’s new book, Hold Still, a memoir, and every page so far has me making a mental note. She is such a congenial writer and I keep thinking, Yes, oh yes — someone who shares my sense of family history (even if hers is much more, well, illustrious than mine), of how a book can include visual elements that so many publishers would be reluctant to include. Unless of course you’re Sally Mann.

And thank goodness she is. I’ve loved her images in the past. I remember the extraordinary flutter of attention when she published Immediate Family, a collection of ravishing photographs of her children alive in the world of their Virginia farm. Some of the images portray the children at play, in the river, on a long wooden porch — and in many of them, the children are naked. As children living in a rural area with a healthy sense of themselves often are. I remember my own children here on our rural property running under sprinklers in summer and rolling in the grass, clothing abandoned. When they became socialized, well, to be honest, once they began school, that carefree joie de vivre evaporated.

I remember criticism of her book coming from surprising sources. Mary Gordon, for example, who responded to one photograph, “The Perfect Tomato”, this way:

“The application of the word ‘tomato’ — sexual slang for a desirable woman — to her daughter insists that we at least consider the child as a potential sexual partner. Not in the future but as she is. The fact that the children are posed by their mother, made to stand still, to hold the pose, belies the idea that these are natural acts — whatever natural may be.”

That photograph, in the Guggenheim Museum , breaks my heart with its beauty. And proves that people see the world the way they want to see the world. It’s innocent or radiant or potentially dangerous — or all of these. Art can make us uncomfortable, I suppose, even as it celebrates the layers of what it means to be a child balanced on a cluttered table, with tomatoes just picked arranged on its surface, in a shaft of ethereal light, perhaps about to fall. It’s what is. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

So the book will be my companion over the next week. And companions often provoke one to look back, to remember, as part of the series of responses they elicit from you as you accompany them through their own memory grove. In my first book of essays, Red Laredo Boots, I wrote about my family. They were young and they were at the centre of my daily life. I also wrote about my extended (and inherited) family. There’s an essay in that book, “The Tool Box”, which meditates on family history by itemizing the contents of a wooden box John had been given by his mother. The box was a gift to his father from his paternal grandfather when John’s parents emigrated to Canada in 1953. We received it in the mid-1990s. I found it so potent, somehow. That a grandfather who John had hardly known would make a box for a son — John’s father — without any sort of building desire or ability; yet John and I built our own house. The box seemed (in the way objects can) to be emblematic of that mystery. John’s mother was horrified that I would write about such a thing and she was hugely offended by the essay. Although she had been separated from John’s father for decades when my book came out, she felt I had overstepped my privilege as her daughter-in-law by writing an essay which referred to what she called “her story”. We were estranged for several years and came to a kind of impersonal truce eventually. I realized then how dangerous personal material could be — not just to the writer who plunged into it but to those who felt a sense of ownership. Those boundaries, the borders — they are fluid of course and about as capricious as anything can be. But I’ve always felt I needed to try to figure them out. Would I intrude on territory others felt was off-limits or somehow sacred? Yes. Was I willing to take the chance that I might offend members of my family — immediate or extended? Well, I never begin a piece of writing with that intention. But I recognize the potential in almost everything I do. In my case, it’s not photographing my children in all their naked beauty — not for their nakedness alone but for the moment when the image transcends the ordinary to become something else: “The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.” Which is so sensible somehow and gets to the heart of the artistic impulse. Mine is to examine the multiplicity of memory and my — our — relationship to it. What might be made of that, in all honesty but also in service to artifice itself.

On the wall above my desk is a drawing my daughter Angelica made when she was about six. I believe (and this is the way I remember it) that she gave it to me as an apology for something she’d done or said. It is something I cherish — and parsing it from this day, 24 years later, is interesting: she’s under a rain-cloud and I’m under the sun. She’s small. I’m large and extravagant in what I remember as my party-dress from those days  — a two piece Moroccan confection with beads along the shoulders and the hem of the skirt which clicked deliciously when I walked. Her blond hair. My red hair. (I’m not a red-head but maybe that was the time I tried the Body Shop’s henna rinse. A mistake but here it is commemorated on a piece of paper from the recycling box. Remember the old printer paper from the dot-matrix printers where you had to tear off the perforated edges which held the paper in place on the printer?) I have no hands — mothers could perform magic in those days. I’m smiling. She’s grimacing. My name’s in bold black and hers (note the lower-case a) is scanty (though it comes first!). We are pretty much the same size now and she is about as accomplished as a young woman can be. Whatever happened to occasion this drawing makes me grateful for the discords in families because I have the record of it in all its childish iconography. One day I’ll write about it. Or wait. Maybe I just have.

after the argumentSome of us write about our families because they continue to beguile us, to confuse us, to provide mysterious paths to the past and to the future. Sometimes when I give public readings, people ask if my children mind being present in my work. Sometimes they do, I think. But theirs — ours — is the world I inhabit. It’s our brief story. Or part of it at least.

“I certainly knew that the context of place was important in my family pictures, but I also knew that I was creating work in which critical and emotional perception can easily shift.” That’s Sally Mann again and all I can say is that I am so looking forward to the rest of this book.

you can’t hear…

•July 5, 2019 • Leave a Comment

…the last song of the robin, notes echoing in the morning as I write this, or the Western tanager’s obbligato.

beauty

I’ve begun a new piece of writing, mostly fiction, and have been up in the nights, thinking my way into its locus, its characters. There’s music in it (you can’t hear it yet), because one of the characters is a cellist. There’s a party and a woman who chooses the flowers herself. Does this sound familiar? Yellow tansy, hardhack, airy umbels of Queen Anne’s lace.

Last week three wildfires burned nearby. One of them we saw from our bedroom window, smoke rising from the wooded slopes on the west side of Sakinaw Lake. I called it in to the fire service and described my best sense of where it was as the man on the other end of the phone line looked at a map in front of him. The north-west bay, the ridge between the lake and Agamemnon Channel. Another fire was started by lightning near Klein Lake and we could smell the smoke from that one coming over the slope of the mountain we used to walk several times a week. (Before J’s hip issues…) The third fire was the most serious, I think, and was close to Madeira Park. Families were on evacuation alert for a day or two as the air tankers and helicopters carrying buckets of water tried to put it out, with a ground crew struggling up the steep slope where it burned. You can’t hear the planes as they swooped down over Sakinaw Lake to skim up water, led by their bird-dog plane.

You can’t hear the peace now that the planes have gone, the morning quiet again, with late robin-song in the grey air.