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redux: Winter’s story

winter's story

In January, 2017, a cat began hanging around our place. We don’t live near other people, apart from one couple just beyond us who are here part-time. We asked them about the cat but they didn’t know anything about it. I put out a bowl of food, which was eaten immediately, and I put a pillow on a chair under the eaves. I could tell the cat had slept on it the next day. It left a small shrew tucked into one corner of the chair. We put up a notice by the mailboxes and also posted the cat’s photograph on Craigslist and Kijiji. It was cold that January and we were living in a state of unknowing as shadows had appeared in my lungs and it was suspected I had metastatic lung disease. Many tests ensued. Then the cat decided to live with us. We named him Winter and somehow it was comforting to have this other life among us. I’d like to think he brought us luck because the shadows mysteriously disappeared and the last tests were pretty conclusively negative for cancer. He was—is—a very easy-going animal. He’d curl up by our feet at night and make himself at home in one of the chairs by the woodstove during the day. He turns out to be a hunter, bringing us gifts of little creatures, mostly alive. We’ve managed to save most of them, or at least the ones we find in time. On nights when the coyotes sing, he’ll raise his head from the bed and listen, then return to sleep. His other life, the one before us, was a mystery. People would ask if he liked dogs and we’d answer that we had no idea. (I’m looking these days for the right dog to join our household and have been hopeful that Winter will adapt.) He was lean when he arrived but not emaciated. And when we took him to the vet for shots, the vet agreed with us when we said the cat had obviously been cared for. (The vet also asked us to let him know if we didn’t want to keep Winter because he was very taken with the cat himself.)

This morning a man came to buy a few books from me. We’ve known him casually for years. We’d see him down by the boat dock on Sakinaw Lake and he’d mention reading my books, John’s books, and we’d talk about other stuff too. I thought he was going to a job-site on the lake but it turns out he lives in one of the water-access cabins on the other side of the bay. It’s a few miles from us through dense woods. No roads, which is why he goes back and forth by boat. So as he was leaving, we were talking about animals—we were watching his beautiful Bernese mountain dog race around by the cars—and he said he’d once had a lovely cat that had disappeared, eaten (he thought) by a lynx that was hanging around and that another dog of his had treed at one point. When was this, I wondered. January of 2017 was the reply.

So Winter turns out to be Poncho, late of Sakinaw Lake, and with a previous life that included a trip to Calgary, maybe a tussle with a lynx, a loving family, and an adventure traveling from one remote cabin to our house (kind of remote also) in winter, with coyotes and cougars and other potential hazards for a small-ish young cat. We aren’t going to give him back to you, I told the man, and he laughed and said he completely understood. He called his wife and she was dumbfounded when he said he was standing in our kitchen, holding Poncho. We’ve offered visiting rights, beginning with dinner in a week or two.

It’s good to have the mystery solved. Sort of. But I also remember how his arrival felt like a gift in those dark days of winter nearly 3 years ago. Caring for him took my mind off my own uncertainty. Our uncertainty, because if the shadows had proved to be tumours, then our lives would have changed in ways I don’t really want to think about now. The light is low in the trees and it’s the time of year I can see little silver flashes of Sakinaw Lake from my study. Imagine a cat coming all that way.

(A tree is its own notes.)

the shapes

1.

I went out to stand for a moment under the blue sky. Behind the garden shed, a dead cedar, brought down on Wednesday by 3 men in the rain. A living tree died, its length bucked into logs, each one so beautiful I want them to stay in this gallery of open air, green salal, perfumed by the resin. Forget the fire, forget the trip across rough ground to the woodshed. Behind the garden shed, a towhee is searching in the new sawdust.

inner

2.

Take a minute to rest your hand on the surface. Run your finger along the edge of the heartrot, its spongy decay. You could count the rings. If you’d ever kept the kind of weather notes you meant to, you could match the rings with drought and rain. (A tree is its own notes.)

through

3.

Behind the garden shed, there is a portal, a view of time released from its vertical tyranny. You kneel in your nightdress, under blue sky, and look through.

From this window, like the moon
I keep sending news secretly. (Rumi)

Two single cloths, indigo dyed, one backed with red flannel, one with red broadcloth: here

waiting blossoms

This morning I was updating a list of quilts I’ve made and reading it, I saw a kind of lyrical obsessiveness. So I thought I’d see if it works as a blog post. I didn’t take photographs of finished quilts until maybe 5 or 6 years ago. There are days (this is one of them) when I want to be reminded I’ve done things. Not dusting or dishes or enough laundry but things that will last.

_________________________________

Quilt Inventory

  1. Corduroy and blue prints, squares, rust backing: Brendan has it.
  2. God’s Eye, green and pink prints: in linen cupboard here.
  3. Pink and green squares with cats and butterflies: Angie
  4. Squares with fishing flies: Brendan
  5. Blue window with three panes along the top: Forrest
  6. Ohio Star, light blue prints, unbleached cotton: here
  7. Zig zags inspired by hot air balloons over Provo: Liz
  8. Red tulips on blue background: here, on rocking chair
  9. Small log cabin in blues and yellows: here, little kids’ room
  10. Nine patch with japanese prints and olive green squares: here, little kids’ room
  11. Batiked fish and red japanese print squares, tied: here

    fish

  12. Tulips and flowered print: Penny’s 50th
  13. Table runner, rusts and blues: David and Diane for caring for Spike
  14. Log cabin, blues and yellows: Mum and Dad, 50th anniversary, here (because they died)
  15. Log cabin with saffron sashing: Forrest
  16. Yellow and blue stars: Solveigh, 50th
  17. Pinwheels, Kaffe Fasset fabric: Brendan and Cristen
  18. Stars: Brendan and Cristen
  19. Autobiography of (purple) stars: Angie
  20. Blue and yellow stars: here

    two starry quilts

  21. Yellow stars, red border: here
  22. Fish squares, indigo: Forrest and Manon


    P1070361

  23. Fish panels, indigo: Angelica
  24. Many quilted pillow covers, including an Ohio Star for Edith Iglauer, patchworks for Cristen, silk squares for Angelica, some indigo and linen for here
  25. French patchwork: Forrest and Manon
  26. French patchwork: Angelica (Christmas 2019)
  27. French patchwork: Cristen (birthday 2020)
  28. Blue patches, tied: here
  29. Patchwork: Kelly (Second birthday, 2016)

    kelly's quilt

  30. Single cloth fish and stars: Arthur (third birthday, 2018)

    arthur's quilt

  31. Kite: Henry

    henry's kite

  32. Euclid’s Orchard: Brendan
  33. Dark Path: here (2019)

    dark path

  34. Two single cloths, indigo dyed, one backed with red flannel, one with red broadcloth: here

    blue wings

  35. Log cabin, greens: Anik (2020-21)

    log cabin quilt 2

  36. School bus with clouds: Eddy (2021)

    bus

  37. Rivers and vascular system, here (2021-22)

    frozen fog

  38. Structural, Japanese cottons, here (unfinished, 2022)

    clothesline

  39. French patchwork, in progress

‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ (John Muir)

scraps

For the past month I’ve been working almost daily on a long essay, or series of essays—I’m not sure which yet; I have some ideas of eventual form but it will depend on what I find out, where the ideas lead me. It’s writing that takes me back nearly four and half decades and some of it is painful. Things happened and I’m revisiting them. For a little while, it felt like an aspect of myself was taken from me, if that doesn’t sound too dramatic. In the back of my mind, for years, there’s been a small voice asking me what I’m going to do about it. Something extraordinary was given to me, too. I need to say that. And over the years, what was taken and given has changed. Sometimes writing is like swimming in deep and unknown water. How deep is it? What else is there? What about the currents? A strong swimmer knows she has the ability to stay afloat, buoyant in the turbulence, if it arrives. I’m not a good swimmer but I am strong and at this point in the writing, I am ready for the deep.

I said I am still figuring out the form for this work. Because it’s about paintings, I might trying to “curate” the arrangement of sections to reflect how they might appear in a gallery. But chronological or thematic? Sparse or cluttered? And it’s also about time: then and now. 1978 and the present, with pauses along the way. It’s also about perspective. Two voices, at least two, talking through the decades. Maybe three voices. A call and response? I want music in this writing. In some ways it’s a fugue. It’s contrapuntal.

I gave a presentation a few weeks ago on the essay and when I read my notes now, about essays in general, I see that in some ways I was working through how to organize this writing in particular. It doesn’t matter how long it is. Essays can be brief and they can go on forever. They can start with some paint on the tip of a brush in 1978 and like a fugue, they can introduce the subject, in several voices, in several pitches, they can provide a connecting passage or episode, the voices alternating, building, repeating and returning, false entries, strettos responding and interrupting, and then they can conclude with a coda, reminding us of the themes, the variations.

This different seeing allows us to find essays in unlikely places. A mode of expression rather than a genre? Can a poem be an essay if it attempts, if its thinking is reflective, if it pursues the shape and restless nature of consciousness? Can an essay be embedded in a novel, a libretto, an oratorio? Can we borrow the term to use when we find ourselves reading something that is finally essayistic in a field guide, an instruction manual, notes on maps or finding aids in archives or museums? I think we can. And if we are resourceful, we’ll tuck these bright scraps into our carrier bag, our gathering basket, and wait until we have critical mass. The gardeners and magpie quilters among us know about accumulating materials in our compost bins and our stash baskets. A red square, three lengths of blue, yellow flocked with provencal flowers. A piece of ticking. Comfrey leaves, the mashed remains of grapes after making jelly, long curls of apple peel. We look and look and then one day we see something of our lives. The yellow cotton becomes the stars over our houses, the compost is an autumn’s worth of kitchen scraps – the dinners we had with friends, jam making, the pears we forgot to eat. Maybe like John Muir, we recognise that ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

“a wagon at dawn” (Milosz)

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How is it that you can be two places at once, awake and dreaming? How can you be in the house you built and love, and also on a road coming down from the Carpathian Mountains where you swam in a pool just at sunrise, mist in the valley below, on the road coming down from the mountains, feeling such sadness at leaving? You remember how you felt. As though you’d found a missing strand to your complicated DNA, part of the twisted ladder of your self, the molecule that allowed you to sit at a table under the apple and pear trees at the farm you passed each day on your way back to the hotel in the mountains, talking quietly about the harvest. It could have been Tiudiv, Kryvorivnya, Bukovets, Yavoriv. You are allowed to stroke the white horse’s neck. Someone else goes into a church to prayer. Stooks in the field. The scent of burning spruce in the chimneys nearby. It could have been another life. Yours.

P1140288

So you read the poem someone posts on social media and you begin to weep.

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

What will happen to the man with the white horse, the hands that shaped the hay, leaning on rakes part way through the work to catch up on the news? You cannot be two places at once. You are in your kitchen, blueberry muffins in the oven, wisteria leaves falling quietly on the deck. Three days in a row the young buck came to your window. Everything is white with frost. What will happen in that life, in this one? Those mornings you swam in cold water were a kind of ecstasy, chickadees in the sunflowers black with the coming of winter. Looking down into the valley felt like falling.

From the Hutsul wedding

Oh my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Note: the lines of poetry are from “Encounter” by Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by the poet with others.

 

“it lives in my spine” (Leonard Cohen)

core

Yesterday we went down to the old orchard, now overgrown and returning to forest, and John bucked up some of the cedar logs left after some we had some work there 3 or 4 years ago. Cedar’s not a great firewood. It doesn’t burn as hot or as long as fir, maple, or alder. But we have the logs and they’ll provide some heat. After John’s double hip surgery in October, 2020, he was left with a paralyzed foot after a nerve was compressed during the procedure. We hoped for a complete recovery but two years have passed and that’s unlikely now. But it’s much better than it was. Using a chainsaw is possible now, for example, because his balance is better. So that’s why we were down in the orchard, him bucking and splitting, and me carrying logs to the back of our Element. Two years ago, a friend came with his son and they cut up a couple of the logs. I wrote about it here. At the time, looking out the kitchen window as Joe and August stacked logs in our woodshed, I thought I was seeing angels. And maybe I was. Sometimes people offer exactly the thing you need and that day it was the offering of logs to warm our house.

the very core

I was lifting logs from the area by the chopping block when a long stick the width of a pencil dropped to the ground. It was the core of the log John had just bucked into stove lengths and then split. I must have seen the core of a cedar log before but this time I really looked at it. Hard, and smooth as skin, faintly pinkish–you can see it in the photo at the top of this post, though the pink is lost in that image. It is its own thing, its own strength. I put it aside and will keep it on my desk with all the other objects–the paperweight John brought me from Toronto years ago and which led me into an essay about my mother (“Paperweight”, in Phantom Limb); a large smooth rock from the Skeena River; a chunk of fossil-filled rock from a beach west of Sooke; two ikons, one from Greece, courtesy of Angelica, and one from Skagway; the pelvis of my beloved dog Lily; a tiny ceramic tree frog; a glass heart (a gift from John); and a bowl of shells and stones collected over the years.

We were in the old orchard, the one I wrote about in Euclid’s Orchard, and sunlight was bright on the house above us, the bigleaf maples on the edge of the orchard, and we were doing work we’ve done for decades, willingly, grateful to still have the strength to bring in the wood. There are things I’m having a hard time with these days and I’m trying to write my way through, hoping for clarity and peace. The core of the cedar reminds me of days past, days of kindness, which of course is the title of one of my favourite poems of Leonard Cohen. Reading it just now, I find lines to carry with me, to hold as strength and courage.

There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
it lives in my spine

It lives in my spine, what I haven’t forgotten. The fires we lit in the orchard to burn old brush, the ones when our children were still here, the ones when they returned with their own children. The days of apple blossom and pear blossom, rich as sandalwood. The good light of a few candles on the deck at the end of a dinner. The bees. The friends who have passed into memory, the ones who turned away, the dark nights driving home when elk crossed the highway in a long stream, the single snowy owl on the tree by our driveway. In my spine, what I loved in my old life, holding me true in the days since, the ones to come.

“See, they return, one, and by one” (Pound)

young buck

1.

I was at my desk, writing a sentence that wouldn’t end, when I looked out to meet the young buck’s eye. He was eating periwinkle at the foot of an arbutus. He is the one who arrives with the bigger doe, he is the one who stands in the grass as she races into the woods when I come out to swish them away with my hands. Is he her son, her lover, her autumn companion? They are animals from a story, high-stepping across the moss. Swished into the woods, it’s not long before they return.

See, they return, one, and by one,              
With fear, as half-awakened; 
As if the snow should hesitate           
And murmur in the wind,      
            and half turn back;     
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”         
            inviolable. 

2.

A sentence that wouldn’t end, taking me back, back, to the year I was 23, unsettled, trying to find a place for myself. A sentence that holds clauses, agreements, too many verbs, an unhappy subject. I walked at night under the old oaks along Rockland Avenue, trying to find the most direct route to water. At the edge of the sea, foghorns. Were those stars in the distance or freighters waiting to be guided to shore?

3.

Some nights I lie awake and listen for owls. A single barred was calling down towards the lake. I keep paper and a pencil by my bed for the sentence that won’t end, won’t ever let me finish it, sort out its punctuation, Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all, moonlight through fog, the dreams I had when I was 23 still troubling my sleep, the sentence, the one that goes on forever, asks to be mapped, changes its cadence, invites an oboe to sing obbligato, who cooks for you, half the call, then nothing, a few drips of water falling from the edge of the roof above my pillow.

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

Note: the first lines of verse are Ezra Pound’s, from “The Return”. Rilke provides the next couplet, via Robert Bly, from “Autumn”.

“They began to glow, began ‘to talk’…”

For the essay I am currently working on, an essay or maybe a collection of linked essays because I’m not quite sure how to arrange the material, how to stage it or hang it is maybe more appropriate as I am writing about paintings, anyway, for this work, I am reading a stack of letters written to me in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s. They are dense and intense and I come up from the reading sort of dazed. But it feels like the right time to be doing this.

Yesterday I was reading a letter from March, 1982, when my correspondent had just returned from a studio exhibition of the work of Margaret Peterson. I’d completely forgotten this letter and his account. In either 1975 or 1976, a group of us were taken by our university instructor Rona Murray to visit Howard O’Hagan and his wife Margaret Peterson. I’d read Howard’s novel Tay John and his collection of stories, The Woman Who Got On At Jasper Station, and I remember asking him some questions, listening to his gruff responses. Margaret was sort of in the background, making tea for us, finding places for us to sit. But I remember her vivid paintings on the walls of the small apartment on Dallas Road in Victoria, the dim light, the visible poverty of their lives. In 2018, John and I entered Lupo, a restaurant in Vancouver, and were seated in a small room below a stunning painting. That’s a Margaret Peterson, I exclaimed. Seeing the painting brought back the memory of that apartment, Margaret’s beautiful work, and how it seemed that she’d been forgotten in the years since. By me, yes, though I tried to make amends by writing the memory of the visit into the novella I was working on then, The Weight of the Heart; and I think by the times we live in, the art world of the 21st century.

at Lupo

Yesterday, I was taken by the account of the studio visit in which J. writes of the shabby apartment with the paintings, mostly gouache on paper, thumb-tacked to the plaster walls. But then light from a sunset over the Strait of Juan de Fuca flooded into the room and he realized how extraordinary Margaret’s work was.

They began to glow, began ‘to talk’, to assert their presence & dignity, even more than the two aged warriors who were our hosts. Her work is highly original, could be confused, mistaken for, an eclecticism of Indian (N.A.) folk art & some borrowings from Cubism. But it isn’t! Each of the works exists completely on its own, at two levels, like the work of aboriginal artists of thousands of years ago. Her forms are symbolic of the man-woman beneath the skin, of the bodies of their spirits. The designs are precise, essential, not decorative (like some Indian art) no schematic, and are unique and full of pure life. Her colours are simple. She works on a kind of glowing red ground (Mauda?? red, mainly) with black, white, brown, green, yellow, hieroglyphic ‘stories’ on them. They are all very powerful; have an undeniable voice. My senses were strongly awakened & I watched her, him (who in gruff, blunt, interjections from the corner, supported Margaret’s ‘performance’ with contradictions & corrections) and the myth of life, of real life, that her work embodies. I felt the absolute opposite of my first impression of these two ancient lives. I felt reassured, reconfirmed, by their lives and wondered at the supreme logic of art.

How is it that some painters (writers too) are remembered and some aren’t? Look at the painting I photographed with John’s phone at Lupo, awkwardly, badly, but see how it glows and shimmers with life. I could live with this on my wall, could look at it daily and that wouldn’t be enough. It has resonance, power.

In a letter written a month after the one recounting the studio visit, J writes to describe three days spent helping Margaret and Howard move out of their apartment into a motel, then a hotel, and finally onto the Black Ball Ferry where they were planning to take a train from Port Angeles to San Francisco where Margaret planned to stay with her brother. By September of that year, Howard was dead.

I have a booklet published as part of the The Artists’ Archives series at the University of Victoria Libraries, An Archival Mosaic: The Margaret Peterson Fonds, by Robert Amos, and he provides some biographical information as well as an account of how her archives came to Special Collections at the University of Victoria. There are a number of reproductions of her gorgeous paintings. Reading this morning that she’d left a rented storage locker filled with her work and that she’d “always named high prices for her work, so very few had been sold in her later years”, I think of J’s description of her studio show.

I had come with a couple of Victorian collectors, i.e. those few that one knows, who have the funds to acquire. One of them, who has purchased quite a lot of my work at prices that have been always in the hundreds, was enamoured of one of Margaret’s small works, which was thumb-tacked to the wall & was on some rather cheap paper, about 8”x10” in size. She asked Margaret what kind of price she would like, and Margaret, rather indifferently, said she wanted to make a painting from it but she guessed she would sell it for about a thousand. The dear collector, with her pearls, Straiths suit, and Hawaiian holidays, could hardly believe her ears. She kept on asking me what I thought, ‘is she that good’, etc. I enjoyed it rather a lot.

“There are people in our communities who have more than one echo in their homes.”

I was tidying my desk yesterday, simply to be able to use it properly–laptop in front of chair, room for the stack of letters I pulled out of my file cabinet to use in this current work I am doing, box to my right for notes, and all the bits and pieces sorted (with an eye to discarding some of them, although I almost never do)– when I found a piece of paper with something scribbled on it.

There are people in our communities who have more than one echo in their homes.

I scribbled this years ago, maybe after I’d heard someone say it on the radio. I was taken with its mystery. Write it down, I must have said to myself. And then it got pushed between the books at the back of the desk, the ones I keep in place because I often use them: the Pinsky translation of Dante’s Inferno, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, my university copies of the Odyssey (trans. Fitzgerald), Pliny’s Natural History, my blue-cloth bound Concise Oxford Dictionary, Derek Jarman’s Chroma, British Columbia Place Names (the Akriggs, though I also have Andrew Scott’s Raincoast Place Names, too large to sit on my desk between rocks acting as bookends, one from the Skeena River, one from Sandcut Beach; it’s on a shelf above the window), Margaret Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History, a few books by Gary Snyder, Godwin’s Greek Grammar, and maybe 30 more (it’s a wide desk, pushed up against a window the width of the room). It got pushed between the books and now I have it again to try to figure out.

I am a person with more than one echo in my home. Last night there was an owl, far away, but the call finding its way to where I was reading in my bed. There’s the sound (and the echo) of the voices I’d listen for in the night when my children were young, the sound of them dreaming, and once one of them, tucked in with me when his father was working in Vancouver and the children would take turns sleeping in my bed (they would have been 1, 3, and 5), anyway one of them sitting up suddenly, calling out like a boy king leading his troops into battle, clear and loud, but the language he spoke in was not English. Was it Persian, an archaic form of Sanskrit, old Norse? I have no idea. He was still asleep and I tucked him back under the covers, back into the dream, which still echoes in my memory. On spring mornings, there’s the call and the echo of the Swainson’s thrush, the tanager, the salmonberry song of the robins in June. When the loons call at dawn or dusk, it’s every year I’ve listened, echoing, echoing.

And today, the echo is the painter who has left me with versions of my younger self on the walls of my house, echoes of who I was, who I became. I am reading his letters, one phrase echoing over and over, and I can’t quite decide if it’s love or obsession. One sounds so much like the other in these letters. One sounds so much like the other in the paintings I am writing about.

letters2

redux: what the essay wants

essay bit

It wants space, it wants room, it wants to cry, to think aloud, to examine a plan showing subdivision of Lot C Block 6 Plan 2528 AR in Beverly Heights Annex and determine its relationship to where your grandparents built their house, it wants a recipe for your grandmother’s sweet plum pedaha, it wants to know the details of your mother’s birth and abandonment, it wants to include the spring song of the Swainson’s Thrush, the quick rustle of the winter wren in the underbrush just this morning, it wants to spread itself across the page like the clean hieroglyphics of crows on the beach of Cox Bay last month, it wants, it wants, it wants.

essay 2