when a book is a companion

•July 22, 2018 • 2 Comments

bucket list

This is where I swim most mornings from late June until October. I love the water and have been swimming in this lake since 1980. There have been some changes around the lake but not many. My children swam daily, in summers, all the years they lived here and returning, it still brings them to its shores at least once a day. I’ve always understood that it was once an ocean inlet and that the water at the very bottom is salty. I know it’s deep. And one summer there were jelly-fish in the lake. One summer, leeches. Cutthroat trout. Last week I saw loons, a family of them, and there are mergansers, mallards, heron, eagles, Canada geese, stands of huge firs and cedars along the lake, little pockets of wild mint, arbutus, hardhack (which is blooming now), a few of the beautiful Pacific rhododendrons at the far end by the ecological reserve, Nootka roses, sweet gale, and whew, I didn’t mean to write the lake shore but it seems I have. This is partly because I’m reading the most wonderfully companionable book right now, Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she details the lakes she swims in around Berlin over the course of a year, sometimes cutting through the ice to make a place large enough for her to submerge her body for a brief dip.

Jessica is an environmental historian, tracing landscape changes on Hampstead Heath in London, and part of the book’s narrative follows her as she works on her dissertation. She says, “I”m not trained as a scientist, but an environmental historian must be adaptable. For this reason, I jump between history, ethnograph(y) and botany. Archives, interviews and plant keys. As a swimmer, limnology is another kind of key. A way to read the lakes.” And this is a thread that guides the reader as it guides the author. Water quality and how it shapes the experience of someone swimming the lakes is affected by so many things and we see them from the perspective of a woman who notices the plants, algae, mushrooms by the shore, plantings near the shores, whether the water bodies are naturally-occurring or anthropogenic (old quarries and so on), and how widely the lakes are used seasonally.

She is interested in language, too, and how it shapes our understanding of a landscape.

It starts with a marsh. Birch wood gives way to straight, skinny alder, sunken deep in the marsh along the River Briese, which cuts north of the city. A successful stage between swamp and forest, this Erlenbruchwald is known in English as a ‘carr’. Like ‘Berlin’, ‘carr’ basically means ‘swamp’.

[As an aside: I wondered at the etymology of Briese. Was the river named for Bri(e)seis, the woman taken by Agamemnon from Achilles in the Iliad? But no, it seems the root is “breza”, an Old Slavonic word for birch…]

Turning is about swimming, yes, and it’s about love, about estrangement—from our bodies, from our families—and how we make that turn back to wholeness. It’s no accident that Jessica’s swims are always towards the centres of the lakes. On a swim just before flying to Canada for Christmas:

I slip into the water and it’s exactly as I expect: bracing cold, the metallic feeling of its grey sliding over me. I swim out to the centre, counting my strokes, longing to be out and dry away. I count to sixty and then turn back. Better things wait for me in the days ahead: warmth, light and respite from the grey of the city. When I come back, I hope it will have turned to white.

The book takes us through the places (Canada, Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, London and Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond), plunges us into  lakes while reminding us of their unique seasonal stratifications, and is the most congenial book to read after a morning swim in Ruby Lake where the water is green and familiar. I have two short chapters to go and I’m going to make them last. And I must confess that the author’s bold habit of swimming in winter might just be infectious. Here’s what our lake looked like two winters ago, on New Year’s Eve:

arthur at ruby lake

It’s tempting.


postcard from Gannoghs

•July 20, 2018 • 12 Comments


Yesterday we were driving home from another medical appointment and I heard a song on the radio that I kind of liked. What I liked was the chorus:

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean
Where the trees make a canopy
And the moonlight is golden
We could make this a beautiful life
Come on let me show you
In a rented caravan

It reminded me of 39 years ago, in July, when I lived for a month in a small caravan on the edge of the ocean in Gannoghs, a townland in Connemara, not far from Cleggan. I spent two months in Ireland that summer, one of them in a cottage and then in the caravan. It was not fancy but I didn’t want fancy. I wanted a quiet place, in sight (almost) of the island where I’d lived the previous year and which was the muse (that’s not too exaggerated) for the novella I was finishing. After returning from that island, I’d met John and we’d decided to spend our lives together but first I wanted to finish my novella and that meant returning to Ireland.

The caravan had a bed that was stored in a wall and you unlatched it each evening. The view was a field and rocks and the water. There were cows in the field and they rubbed against the caravan. The first time they did it I thought I was the middle of the earthquake but then I heard them stomping around. There was also a neighbour, Bridget King, who lent me a bicycle and who visited most days. She was forgetful and sometimes she came more than once. She made a “cooey, cooey” sound as she rapped on the door with her stick. To get to the caravan you had to cross a stone fence and then push aside a tangle of fuchsia. Usually I heard Bridget but sometimes she caught me unaware.

John came in August and we spent a week in the caravan before going off on further adventures, including a week in Paris. I took him to meet Bridget, thinking that might forestall a visit from her. She lived in a cottage her husband had built with her help and she told me how they’d made the potato beds, draping seaweed over the rocky ground until there was enough depth for planting. (Gannoughs means “a place of stones”.) She had running cold water but no hot and she was elderly and her cottage needed a good cleaning. She had an old goose wing she used to sweep the table with, the crumbs and other bits and pieces landing on the floor. She found three mugs for the tea she offered us and wiped them out with a cloth that had seen better days. I was used to this but John had trouble drinking his tea. I should have warned him too not to take milk. There wasn’t a fridge.

This morning there was something in the air that reminded me of the caravan. The windows were loose in their frames and on a windy day the whole place smelled of ocean. The pages of the novella I was writing, by hand, scattered over the table and benches at the prow of the caravan where you could sit and feel that you were in the prow of a boat. The glass was even scoured by salt.

So that’s the postcard I send today, just before we head out for the follow-up to yesterday’s appointment. The moonlight was golden and we did build a beautiful life, one that goes on, despite the medical mysteries.

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean


a river nearby

•July 18, 2018 • Leave a Comment


After a long day of medical adventures for my poor husband, it was a relief to sit on our deck under the vines and talk to our granddaughter Kelly, who turned 4 yesterday. “It’s my real birthday today,” she confided. Her party was last week so this was worth knowing: that you can celebrate twice (maybe more) but only one day is the actual day you become officially a year older.

Her birthday party included a bike parade, all the kids riding (or gliding, because her bike is a balance bike) with balloons and streamers on their handlebars. And there was also a treasure hunt. A neighbour told them that pirates had been known to come up the North Saskatchewan River to bury their treasure along Mill Creek Ravine, just a half a block from Kelly’s house. And you know how landscapes change over time, particular rivers and ravines. So there was a hunt for this treasure and sure enough, right under the porch of Kelly’s house—gold coins! And even better? There was chocolate inside.

I was not surprised to learn that pirates had been in the vicinity. It was foretold, after all, by the Arrogant Worms:

I hear in North Alberta there’s a band of buccaneers
They roam the Athabaska from Smith to Fort McKay

One of the photographs that arrived by email shows Henry on his bike in their backyard. We gave Kelly this bike for her second birthday. Now she’s moved up to a bigger size and it’s perfect for her brother.
Looking at him, I remembered one of the handful of photographs I have of my father as a child, also on a bike (well, a trike), and also near a river. The Red Deer, not the North Saskatchewan, but their body language is a shared language, across almost a century. My father looks like he would have been 3 or 4 in this photograph:
dad on bike.jpg

He’s wearing a sweater, which suggests this might be fall, his birthday, October, 1929? A boy who might also have dreamed of pirates, of treasure. I wrote about those photographs in Euclid’s Orchard:

I have a handful of photographs from the 1920s, taken on what I suspected was the land where Anna and Joseph settled and that my grandmother must have inherited after Joseph’s death during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. A funeral for Julia, the first child born to my grandmother and her second husband, my grandfather John Kishkan, in 1921 and dead of diphtheria in 1923. My father, Anthony Kishkan, known to his familiars as Tony, on a small trike in a rough yard with a dog. Another of my father in a little car with some wash tubs stacked behind him and bleak hills beyond those. I wondered if this was the land. Dry, dry, and a river nearby.

Sometimes people are too far away. You want to be part of the happy group eating cupcakes among children in a yard in Edmonton and you are instead driving down the highway to spend a day holding your husband’s hand as he is hooked to monitors (which showed that his heart is just fine so whatever else it might be, he has a strong heart). They are far away in time (your father on that bike, the dog barking at something arriving or departing behind him). And they are gone before you asked the questions you always meant to ask. But your father is also present in the body of that small boy on his bike. The half-smile, the collar turned up.

spirit level

•July 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

spirit level

This is a spirit level on a cutting board of spalted maple on a maple worktable on a tile floor in the kitchen of the house we built more than 35 years ago. It sounds like a children’s rhyme, doesn’t it? A hole in the bucket, the spider that caught the fly, the small tool that measures level. This particular level was made by John’s grandfather and included in a tool box his grandfather Harold Pass gave his own son Ben to take to Canada when John’s family emigrated from England in the early 1950s. It seems to me to be a level more useful for cabinet-making than house-building and in fact Harold Pass was a cabinet-maker. The level is oak, with a brass plate fastened on with four smalls screws and if you look in the little window, you can see that our board (and our worktable and our floor and our house) is/are level.

But what about the spirit? Mine feels erratic these days. How can it not? If I listen to the news, my heart starts to race. Wildfires across the province, men without souls meeting to discuss the fate of the world we have known and loved, and even closer to home, the man who cleans up the small park where we swim most mornings expressing dismay at how young men came to the park on the weekend, took over the beach, moving the picnic tables into the lake, and drunkenly challenging anyone who tried to move them back. A beach where children swim and families bring picnics.

When we swim, we are almost always the only ones there. Yesterday a trout jumped out of the water in a shady area near a log. The other day a family of loons came quite close to shore and tried their voices, the song crazy and beautiful. This morning as I swam, I saw, at eye-level, small flies—may flies?—skittering in a regular pattern across the lake’s surface and I suddenly realized the connection between the pattern a fly-fisher creates on the water and the habits of the insects they are mimicking. How many times have I stroked through the water and never noticed the flies? I see mosquitoes and swallows dipping low to feed on them. I see wasps hovering. Occasionally a snake swimming strongly, head alert. But I’d never noticed the dance of the morning flies.

Right now John is outside, finishing the small deck and stairs off the entrance to our printshop. He’s been working on the deck for a week or so, replacing the older (and smaller) deck that was beginning to sag. I saw him pick up a big red plastic spirit level to check to make sure everything was right. These are the steps that lead to the deck that John built. The door that opens to the printshop where two presses wait to print the poem that John wrote for Edmond’s birth. (On our fridge, the poems for Kelly, Arthur, and Henry.)

I want my own spirit to settle down, to pay attention to the details of the place I care for in a general way but also specific ways. Listening to the last Swainson’s thrush songs of the year (probably) this morning. I saw one very early, darting out to eat mountain ash berries. Mostly they are flute notes in the woods to the south of the house so I was surprised to see the actual bird.

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a new bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’

That’s Seamus Heaney, making a riddle of the name for the tool that measures level but also takes our measure.  When I looked online just now to see what the liquid is that makes the bubble to indicate level, a tool site told me this: “A Spirit Level is a tool used to indicate how parallel (level) or perpendicular (plumb) a surface is relative to the earth. A spirit level gets its name from the mineral spirit solution inside the levels.” Oh the world is coded today, the last song of the thrush, the bubble hovering in the small implement on my kitchen worktable, the messages in the old rhymes we learn as children and don’t forget. I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. There’s a hole in the bucket. A little bird told me. The wise old owl saw on an oak and the more he saw, the less he spoke.

summer shortbread

•July 13, 2018 • Leave a Comment

summer shortbread

Tonight we are going for dinner with our friends at Oyster Bay. I haven’t looked at the tide table but I’ll take my bathing suit just in case. When the tide comes in, the bay is the most beautiful place to swim. You are swimming over the remains of fish weirs and oyster beds and there’s feral asparagus, remnants of the cultivated crops grown by the local market garden, self-seeded in the rich muck along the shores. My friend gathers it in spring in her canoe and those dinners are spectacular. Tonight’s will be, too. And I offered to bring dessert—a gooseberry fool flavoured with a little rose-water, and lavender and lemon shortbreads. I made them with rice flour for those in our party who don’t eat gluten and as I was mixing and shaping, I wondered at what point you can call something that you’ve always made in honour of the person who gave you the recipe (well, her son actually, who is in his 80s now) but who would probably not recognize the recipe any longer, well (realizing I’ve lost control of this sentence), how long you still name the recipe for that person? When Alistair MacKay,who was once my husband’s French professor at UBC and who, with his colleague Floyd St. Clair (partner of David Watmough), became dear friends, gave me his mother’s recipe for shortbread, he asked that I call it “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread”. And I do, most happily. It is excellent. I’ve passed along the recipe to others and told them they too must call it by its true name. (It was a hit in Amsterdam last Christmas, apparently.) But when I add rosemary or lemon zest or fierce Chamayo chili bought from a man selling bags of it on the roadside in New Mexico, is it still “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread”? Yes, I think it is. So “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread, with variations for the times we live in, the flavours we crave, the spice we want in winter, the flowers we have available in summer”.

Back to Oyster Bay. I am married to a poet and have lived with him for nearly 40 years, surrounded by poetry. He says he is often surprised to find records of our daily life in the pages of this blog. Surprised by what I remember or pay attention to. Mostly he’s glad, I think. And similarly, I am often surprised to find our daily life in his work. Surprised and delighted and grateful. Here’s part of the first section of one of my favourite poems, John’s “Mud Bottom”, set on Oyster Bay some years ago now but still vital and true.

                                                          I should put on old runners

to walk the creek’s last clarity, its main channel
down the estuary utterly exposed,
brazen and pungent in the sun. Its bed
of clay and hard sand is the only footing
in acres of slippery, deep mud. Its few round stones

in shroud and sweep of seaweed hair are the blind heads
of seekers pushing upstream.
They would be worth knowing, knowing

what a husband knows.
A river, a marriage, living
are deep-pulling puzzlements their whole length.

—from “Mud Bottom”, in Water Stair, Oolichan Books, 2000.

maybe we are cloth

•July 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment


I was sitting at my desk when I saw three pileated woodpeckers fly past my window. They were squawking and I realized I’d been hearing that sound since I woke but it was sort of in the background of other morning noise: the kettle, the news, the cat. So it took a few moments to register. And then I remembered a similar hullabaloo, two years and a week ago, when I was out in the morning, removing the string and banding and clamps from a batch of indigo dye work.



I’m guessing the young have just left the nest and are learning the territory: which trees are best for ants, how to pick huckleberries and saskatoons. How to use their voices for the best effect. As the world turns, as the days repeat themselves, so does the work. I have a basket of fabric prepared for the dye vat and am hoping to get to it soon.

Two years ago I was dyeing fabric and listening to woodpeckers and anticipating the September birth of Henry. This morning I’m thinking of Edmond, a week old today, and how philosophical he looks in this photograph that arrived last night.


In the book I was reading two years ago, Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada writes that, “The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted on the cloth.” Maybe we are cloth, we are the very fabric of being, the world recorded on us like blue dye, the sound of woodpeckers echoing in the trees just beyond.


“Forgotten, but remembering/ourselves as no one will ever remember us.”

•July 9, 2018 • 2 Comments


I’ve said this before but I become more and more convinced every day that the world is becoming a perilous place. I remember the Cold War, as much as one can remember something that formed the backdrop of the time one grew up in. I was born in 1955 and my father was in the Navy. We never had a bomb shelter or anything like that but there was the sense that politics were fraught, that the war my father had fought in (very tangentially) wasn’t really over because, well, there was Korea, then Vietnam, and god knows what would happen with the Soviet Union.

But I was a child, then a teenager. And when I was a teenager, the biggest threat seemed to be environmental. I remember attending a rally at the Provincial Legislature protesting the nuclear weapons test on the island of Amchitka, in Alaska. When I was in university, I was reading the literature that coming out of the Soviet Union, not just Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose big books were everywhere, but the poets: Osip Mandelstam (and his wife Nadezhda’s extraordinary memoirs, Hope Against Hope, and Hope Abandoned), Anna Akhmatova, and others. Later, in my 30s, I encountered the work of Irina Ratushinskaya, reading her poetry—No, I’m Not Afraid and Pencil Letter particularly come to mind—and her memoir of 3 1/2 years in a labour camp, Grey is the Colour of Hope.

Hope is the thing, isn’t it? You have it and then you find it’s fading. For a time, I thought the world would improve. We knew enough about what it took to keep ecological systems healthy and intact that we couldn’t fail to act, could we? We watched the Berlin Wall fall in 1989, we watched (we thought) the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991, and can anyone forget the 1994 general election in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela becoming President? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (finally) established in Canada in 2008? Or the 2008 U.S. election and how Barack Obama and his beautiful family seemed to hold such promise for modern democracy? I kept thinking, it’s so late in our collective history for what ought to be long-accepted as the natural course of events to be unfolding but it’s better late than never. Wasn’t it? And wouldn’t things improve? Weren’t these the openings we’d waited for, agitated for, voted for? For the citizens of countries that were in a position to set aside the old and ugly racial, gender, and geopolitical divisions, ours included (of course)? We could truly address the environmental devastations and the economic inequities. The food insecurities.

But it’s getting later and later and those openings are closing, or at least that’s what it seems to me.

These are days when I’m glad (in a way) to live on the edge of the world. To sit with my beloved and talk about poetry and to watch tree frogs sleeping on the leaf of a lily. I haven’t given up hope, not exactly, but I agree with Mr. Dylan that, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.

no one can see me

One of the poets I was remembering this morning was Nathaniel Tarn. I first read him in the mid-1970s; Where Babylon Ends and Lyrics for the Bride of God come to mind as the collections I loved. There was a spaciousness to his work, a wide-ranging gathering of materials that negotiated a world full of mystery and beauty.

Before the Snake

Sitting, facing the sun, eyes closed. I can hear the
sun. I can hear the bird life all around for miles.
It flies through us and around us, it takes up all
space, as if we were not there, as if we had never
interrupted this place. The birds move diorami-
cally through our heads, from ear to ear. What
are they doing, singing in this luminous fall. It is
marvelous to be so alone, the two of us, in this
garden desert. Forgotten, but remembering
ourselves as no one will ever remember us. The
space between the trees, the bare ground-sand
between them, you can see the land’s skin which
is so much home. We cannot buy or sell this
marvelous day. I can hear the sun and, within
the sun, the wind which comes out of the world’s
lungs from immeasurable depth; we catch only
a distant echo. Beyond the birds there are per-
sons carrying their names like great weights.
Just think: carrying X your whole life, or Y, or Z.
Carrying all that A and B and C around with you,
having to be A all the time, B, or C. Here you can
be the sun, the pine, the bird. You can be the
breathing. I can tell you, I think this may be
Eden. I think it is.

—Nathaniel Tarn