posts

after

A few people asked me what was in the parcels I referred to in a post from just before Christmas Day. Because some of my friends and family members read this blog and because some of them were on the receiving end of those packages, I couldn’t say. But now I can. There were rounds of panforte,

panforte

rustic houses John cut out of old post, fitted with copper chimneys, then the details painted (badly) by me, with beeswax candles for the smoke,

candle house

and some of the packages also contained jars of rose petal jelly from summer, or wine grape jelly flavoured with thyme. Our cards this year were not particularly Christmas-y (because the year…) but contained a brief passage from an essay in my forthcoming Blue Portugal:

front

inner

I hope the year is kind to all of us, that we all find a way to navigate these strange waters we find ourselves in, and that the world rights itself, centres itself, so that we can rest easy and perhaps take guidance from Voltaire, who advised us to cultivate our gardens and whose shopping list included “artichoke bulbs and as much as possible of lavender, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, rue strawberry bushes, pinks, thadicee, balm, tarragon, sariette, burnet, sage and hyssop to cleanse our sins, etc.”

a gift I gave myself

bound

The kitchen is quiet this morning, and the world outside is white with snow. Yesterday carols rang out as we made coffee, settled by the fire to open stocking gifts, moved near the tree for what was under it in bright bags, tied with ribbons, and then began the preparation of one meal after another — poached eggs with hollandaise and smoked salmon; roast duck with cornbread and dried fruit stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts, cauliflower baked with tomato sauce and parmesan (Karna is vegetarian), buttermilk biscuits, John’s trifle. This morning, in the quiet kitchen, I was thinking about the year to come. I have new silver bangles to add to my others, a book about Helen Frankenthaler, a device so that I can turn the light in the greenhouse on and off remotely (this is so welcome because of the times I’ve gone out in the dark to turn the switch on, shining a little flashlight, hoping that cougars are lying low), a painting by my granddaughter, my favourite salted chocolate caramels.

The gift that called to me this morning was the one I gave myself. Or at least I chose it myself, at a craft fair in November, when we stopped by a table covered in the most beautiful and unusual books. Blank books, with wooden covers. Coptic-bound, with waxed Irish linen thread, the signatures wrapped in gorgeous papers. Each one was gorgeous and completely different from every other one. It was hard to chose just one but I did, this one, its cover made of yellow cedar and Peruvian walnut:

wooden book

Fields of Blue, Green and Gold. Each book was named but this one was the one for me. The woman carefully wrapped it, Furoshiki style, in green silk. The package was so beautiful that I said to John that I’d put it away and it could go under the tree. Because to be honest it felt indulgent to buy something for myself so close to Christmas and also to buy something sort of frivolous, though blank with possibilities.

And now it’s been opened, the green silk folded and put aside to wrap something else in when the time comes. What now. What will I do with this book? I think I’ve written before that I don’t keep a journal. I have, in the past, when I’ve been travelling. When I was in my early 20s, I was a little obsessive about keeping one and when I read them now, I wonder at that young woman with her finger firmly on her own pulse, recording every flutter, every bird, every plant, every cup of tea by the big fireplace in the cottage she rented on Inishturbot, in the guest bedroom of the friends in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in the old Victorian heap in Wimbledon where she worked as a dogsbody for a charitable foundation helping psychiatric patients find new footing. But now? An aging grandmother in a house in the woods during a world pandemic? Ha.

In a way this blog is my journal. I sit at my desk when there’s a puzzle to work out, something I want to describe and record, a list I want to put down so I don’t forget. But now there’s a book as I am about to enter my 68th year, absolutely perfect with its rich papers and smooth wooden covers, and a new year ready to unspool on the horizon. A gift I gave myself, bindings carefully stitched with thread I might have chosen, and a first page waiting for my pen to give it life.

open

“And when the stars fill darkened skies/ In their far venture, stay/And smile as dreaming”

cupboards

Half an hour ago I was sitting in the rocking chair, sewing, when I looked across the kitchen and saw the cupboards. The cupboards. They were glowing. Outside it’s snowing and the light inside is lovely. I looked across the kitchen and remembered preparing for our first Christmas in this house. 1982. We’d been building it for about a year and a half and we moved in on December 18th. On the 19th, we returned to Vancouver for some errands to do with the house we were leaving, and then we came home, truly home, on the 20th. My parents were coming for Christmas. My younger brother too. We had a kitchen sink set into a 2×4 arrangement John had constructed, with some other bits and pieces for counters. This was because a friend was building our kitchen cupboards over at his place on Hallowell Road and they weren’t ready. That’s ok. We weren’t ready either. But we managed to make a memorable Christmas, our little family–John, me, Forrest– and my parents and brother. We’d settled our lovely carpet over the plywood floor in the living room area, a step up from the kitchen, and maybe we had a rug on the plywood floor in front of the woodstove. We had two small pine dropleaf tables that we pushed together and we made turkey, all the trimmings, and John made the trifle his family always had at Christmas.

A month later, Brendan was born, and by then we had kitchen cupboards. The same ones we have now because I love them and can’t see any reason to upgrade or change them. They are framed with yellow cedar — our friend bought a whole lot of yellow cedar tongue and groove which had been milled incorrectly and couldn’t go to Japan, its intended destination. Our friend ripped off the tongues and made the frames. The inner panels are ash veneer. The bases are a bit bruised and battered after all these years–nearly 40– but when I clean them with Murphy’s soap and then oil them with lemon oil, they look like they did when they first came into our house.

The summer after Brendan was born, I took both boys to my parents’ house in Victoria for nearly two weeks and John tiled the kitchen floor–16×24 feet– with deep terracotta tiles we’d bought as a remainder from a place in Vancouver. We got a good deal if we bought the last of the lot and so we did. Our counters are tiled with these and so are both bathrooms. There are a few chips and cracks here and there but mostly they are still intact and serviceable.

Half an hour ago I got up from the chair, I went outside to cut some cedar branches, a bit of huckleberry, and some fir boughs brought down by wind. My arms were filled with the scent of the woods and when I came inside, I saw the cupboards again, with their own dream of origins. Theirs and ours.

On the first Christmas we spent in our house, there were no cupboards, no counters, and two pine tables pushed together to hold the feast. We didn’t need much more. John is preparing the living room for our tree, still resting in the woodshed, a little snow on its lower branches. When he brings it in, I’ll put on the carols, the old ones, and the house will fill with memories of every Christmas we’ve spent here. Two are still sleeping, the cat is curious, and outside ravens are calling in the white woods. I send you the warmest wishes for a Christmas that is enough, enough, and a New Year to follow that is peaceful and healthy. I wish this for all of us, on earth and in heaven.

And when the stars fill darkened skies
In their far venture, stay
And smile as dreaming, little one
Farewell, lully, lullay
Dream now, lully, lullay

running lines on a cold morning

progress

1.

Cold air, the lightness of a chickadee landing on my wrist as I filled the feeder, fire warm, coffee dark, cat winding around my feet earlier as I got out of bed, dizzy from too few hours but excited at the arrival, after midnight, of Angie and Karna, a flurry of texts from ferry, from the long highway (“Just by Trout Lake.” “Foggy.”), blue sky, the scent of coming snow. Stitch, sew the rivers you saw from the plane as you approached Edmonton, stitch the red lines to keep you safe.

2.

Sweet lute, Ronn McFarlane playing 17th c. airs from the Wemyss manuscript, the simple elegant notes just right in the morning light, though not the one I am longing for as the old year approaches its welcome end, not “Lady Lie Near Me”, the one I was thinking of last night as I waited for their headlights to appear on our dark driveway.

3.

Take out the old. Take out the recycling boxes and fill the trunk. Take out the ashes of the fires, the news of the virus on every page, the empty bags. And while you’re out in the cold morning, deliver these to friends.

gifts

Last night moonlight filled our bedroom

sleigh

On a recent trip to Edmonton, probably the only trip of its kind for the foreseeable future now that Omicron is among us, there was snow. We had a few outings in it, once to the local rink by the school my grandchildren attend. Their parents don’t–won’t– own a car and they walk a lot, use buses, ride their bikes. The day we went to the rink, their mum came separately, pulling a wagon laden with folding camp chairs (for us mostly), blankets, the skates, helmets, a thermos of coffee laced with Baileys. There were other parents with similar baggage, all of them lacing up their kids’ skates, helping small ones make their way on the ice, though to be honest, I didn’t see a single child who wasn’t far more capable on skates than I am. Cookies were offered around. Equipment was shared. A lot of work was being done. By parents. Hard work, to make sure their children were having as normal a life as possible given the circumstances we all find ourselves living within. The community building by the rink was closed, because of Covid. So there wasn’t a warm place to sit after the skating, or during. (Luckily we had Baileys in our coffee and the chairs Cristen brought in the wagon.) The kids also skate on the creek in the ravine near their house and use the wagon to lug down their skates, hockey sticks, and equipment for clearing the ice. (I don’t know who owns the goal posts but someone lugs those too.)

IMG-20211124-WA0000

About this pandemic, we say to ourselves, John and I, that we are lucky in so many ways because we have space, a house filled with books, enough to eat, the means to order cases of nice wine to brighten our dinners. We had a few social encounters this fall, before Omicron arrived and maybe they’ll sustain us through the lonely dark months. (Though as John pointed out this morning as we drank our coffee, as of 7:58, the days are getting longer.) But what about children? What has this pandemic done to them, what is it doing to them, as the shape of their lives changes by degree in response to the spread of Covid-19 and its difficult protocols? School from home, by screen. Then in classrooms, wearing masks. Swimming lessons cancelled. Art classes by screen, a child sitting at a table, alone, with paints and paper, listening to a bright voice explaining the process. Our Edmonton family and our Ottawa family have made good use of the local parks. The Ottawa family has a vehicle and they regularly go for hikes and other adventures a bit further afield.

tree

Last night moonlight filled our bedroom, which was why I was awake at 3, thinking about children and how this pandemic has irrevocably changed their apprehension of the world. While some adults complain about their rights and privileges vis a vis the vaccine, the loss of attending concerts, movies, dancing on New Years Eve, etc (and yes, I miss concerts, movies, though I am entirely willing to receive as many vaccines as I am offered, for my own health and because I am part of a social contract with my fellow citizens), I wonder how these months will shape the future of our children and grandchildren. University students balanced between actual and virtual seminars, field work, engaged in discussions about texts and fractals and historical events; orchestral players without an audience; darkened theatres; the dead going to earth almost alone, their obituaries declaring no service because of Covid.

John sent me a poem to read the other morning, one that spoke so clearly and powerfully about this point in our collective lives. It’s Jorie Graham’s “Are we”, and here are the first few lines (with the read-in title):

Are we

extinct yet. Who owns
the map. May I
look. Where is my
claim. Is my history

verifiable. Have I
included the memory
of the animals.

And are we? That’s what I was thinking as the moonlight filled our bedroom. Are we extinct? Is the life we knew and perhaps didn’t cherish enough, the one where our children entered each other’s homes, where our tables were laid for 10 or 20, where we celebrated our events in the company of all those we loved, where we shivered with anticipation as the stage lights dimmed and the curtain went up at the beginning of the grand new show, where we sighed as we realized we had to pack up the swimming gear for lessons and sit in the lobby by the pool, watching 20 kids splash and stroke their clumsy lengths, breathing, breathing, while someone leaned close to confide and we didn’t clench in fear because neither of us was wearing a mask.

snowflakes

PS — another image of troopers in the quest for safe winter fun.

heading out

(…turn our darkness into light)

basket of goodness

This morning when I went out to put seed in the bird-feeder, I walked across the patio through a skiff of snow. The evergreens were frosted with it. And the chestnut-backed chickadees were loud as they darted around my hands as I tipped the seed into the silo, one of them resting for a second on my knuckle. For a moment I was in an ancient carol, one set in a bright forest, a chorus of birds singing as sweetly as music.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Inside the fire was warm. The basket of panforte was still on the counter, wrapped and festive, ready for the Christmas bags we will give to friends. The first time I had panforte was in the city of its origin, Siena, and I was so poor, I remember, that I bought a little round of it and ate it on a bench in the Piazza del campo, unable to even afford a cup of espresso to have with it. But the panforte, or strong bread, was enough. Dense with nuts and dried fruit and with a nose-twisting whiff of white pepper, it was everything I’d come to Europe for, or at least it seemed that way at the moment. Imagine her, a girl in tattered corduroys, still tanned from the months she’d spent on Crete, biting into that rich cake. (Her Christmas that year was spent in a bare hotel room, with a parcel collected from Poste Restante in Rome.)

The past is with me constantly these days, these months. The future is so uncertain. We are entering yet another wave of Covid infection, maybe the worst yet. When friends came to lunch a few weeks ago, we planned to resume our traditional New Years gathering, put on hold last year, and even the year before, before the pandemic, because John and I had returned from Christmas in Ottawa with such a terrible bug and knew we couldn’t risk infecting our friends. (On the plane, I’d sat next to a man travelling to Ottawa from Australia, with stops in various places in south-east Asia because of his work, and he was so charming that we talked the whole trip from Vancouver to Ottawa. Later, when the first Covid infections began to make the news, I wondered whether he might have been unknowingly infected because I remember I spent a week in bed with terrible respiratory problems, a fever, aches and pains, a cough that completely exhausted me day and night.) All this to say that our New Years Eves have been very quiet, as was last Christmas. And now we’re being advised to restrict our interactions with others. Put the carols on the player and listen, listen, to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, at least 1200 years old:

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

So I think of the past, the days of long dinners at the table laid with beautiful cloths, candlelight, glasses clinking together as we celebrated birthdays, Christmas, the arrival of a new year in the shadow of the old. The other morning I toasted almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, chopped figs and orange peel I’d candied a few days earlier, warmed honey and sugar, measured cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg, cloves, and white pepper, and mixed them all together for panforte.

I’m not a Christian. But at this time of year, I love the old carols, filled with birds and stars and hope. I love the oldest ones best of all, the ones that draw strands from times before Christianity and use them to weave such rich and moving accompaniments to this season. The Corpus Christi Carol, for example, with its echoes of the Grail story (no finer version than this Britten setting, sung by the marvellous Janet Baker):

He bore him up, he bore him down,
He bore him into an orchard brown.
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

I offer ancient carols, chilly in the winter air, and slivers of dark panforte, with sherry in the Waterford glasses, and hope that the coming year is somehow easier for all of us than the last two have been.

redux: wild mountain thyme

thyme

Note: I wrote these words on this day one year ago. It was bleak. I shopped and cried and hoped for better days. Have they come? Kind of. As we learn to live with the new variant, we at least anticipate a few beloved family members this Christmas. We will go up the mountain for our tree, sing the old carols, make a meal for 4 instead of 2. I’ll remember the moment when the folksinger outside the Trail Bay Centre put a small warm flame in my heart last year, a flame of hope. (And we’ll all go together…)

***********************

 

Some days are easier than others. For me, for us, for all of us. Yesterday was dark. When we went to pick up mail from the day before, we saw that all the parcel boxes at the community mail boxes had been pried open. This was the second time. Someone has been going around the Coast, stealing parcels from the community mail boxes. In a year when our lives are reduced and constrained, when so many people are depending on Canada Post for parcel deliveries and Christmas mail in general. There was confusion at the Post Office itself when I stopped in to mail my final family parcel. Usually you have a key to the parcel box in your individual mail box if you have a parcel. Or if the parcel is large, you have a card asking you to pick it up at the post office. Can I assume that I didn’t have a parcel in the box that was pried open if I didn’t have a key or a card, I asked. But no one could say for sure. It turned out I did have a parcel card in that day’s mail, for a parcel that hadn’t yet gone out. I wanted to ask if two break-ins in as many weeks meant that the mail person would no longer leave parcels in the community mail boxes but the post lady was already cross with me about a postal code she insisted was wrong on the parcel I was trying to mail so I left in tears.

Tears that were never far from the surface throughout the day. Someone scolded me in the 1st grocery story (long story). I got wet everywhere I went. John was grumpy and although I know he has more reason than anyone to be grumpy these days (paralyzed foot….), I took it personally. In the library stacks I cried. I cried as I loaded groceries in the back of the car from the cart after my stop at the second grocery store, unbagged because the cashier spoke sharply to me when I said I’d use my own bags. You’ll have to put things in your cart, then, and do it out in the mall area, she said. We can’t have your bags on the counter. (I know this. I’ve been shopping at this store for 40 years, and once a week throughout the pandemic. I wouldn’t have put my bags on the counter. But I didn’t want to cry in front of her so I just wheeled my cart out to the car with the groceries heaped in any old way.) Wiping my face with the back of my hand as I closed the trunk of the car, I suddenly stopped. Was that “Wild Mountain Thyme” I was hearing? It was. The older fellow who plays his guitar outside the liquor store, the one who usually plays old Gordon Lightfoot songs, who sings with a world-weary voice, and into whose guitar case I’ve dropped many twoonies over the years, was strumming and singing (behind a face-shield).

O the summer time has come
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?

Some days are hard. You think of all the people who will be alone this Christmas, waiting for parcels or cards, you think of the cashiers saying the same thing over and over, hoping that someone doesn’t infect them, the nursing staff in the hospitals consoling, consoling (I think of how kind they were to John when he was in pain), the people working in post offices trying to do their best with mountains of deliveries to boxes that are clearly not safe, the families lined up at food banks, and you wish, wish for the beauty of summers in years gone by, the garden flourishing, your loved ones sleeping in every bed in your house, the long pink sunsets, and even the scent of thyme you’ve cut for the lamb you are preparing for the barbecue, enough for everyone.

I will range through the wilds
And the deep land so dreary
And return with the spoils
To the bower o’ my dearie.
Will ye go lassie go ?

these are the days

house

On Saturday evening we built the walls of the gingerbread house. K and H were having a sleepover with us at our airbnb and K had a whole list of things she was excited about for the weekend. Her art class, a visit to the Christmas market at Fort Edmonton Park where there was a carousel to ride and hot chocolate to drink by outdoor fires and a wagon ride behind two mules called Bonnie and Clyde, the gingerbread house, the sleepover. A few years ago we’d built a house, using pretty much the same kit we used this time, but somehow the walls kept collapsing and Grandpa John had to use every trick known to house-builders to prop them up, even repairing the broken section with extra royal icing, a technique probably not to code.

Yesterday, before heading out to the local skating rink, K and H decorated the house. They are 7 and 5 and had a scheme. I just did what I was asked, which was mostly to drip icing from the bag in the places they pointed to. I said at one point, I’m a pretty good baker but not so good at doing the fancy stuff, and I heard this repeated a few times as the kids told their parents about the project. Even though the gumdrops kept falling off and had to be pressed into place with more icing, even though the little light-shaped candies kept falling to the floor, the house was decorated and much admired.

This morning I feel like K, listing the things I’ve been excited about over the past few days. The Christmas market, watching the carousel with the painted ponies rising and falling on their sturdy poles, walking out to buy warm bread at Boulangerie Bonjour in the next block, eating prime rib at the table set by H with a tablecloth printed with elephants, 3 candles providing soft light, reading stories with a child leaning against me, H’s questions in bed the other night (“If a tornado and a hurricane got in a fight, who would win?, “Is it 10 ‘o’ clock yet?”), the walks back and forth to their house on snowy streets, and sitting here at this desk, looking out at the roofs of Strathcona, magpies gliding across from tree to tree.

the morning2

Three chimneys are sending up sweet smoke into the morning and later in the day we’ll have an outing, maybe across the river to the library or over to Woodrack for coffee and a treat. These are the days. When I remember last winter, it was long and lonely, John recovering from botched surgery and me wondering how long the pandemic would last as I washed masks, planned the single weekly grocery shop, made sure hand sanitizer was in the car. These are the days that were waiting, bright as carousel horses, gumdrops on gingerbread walls, the magpies in the tree next door, clear air and the sunrise surprising me each time I look out.

the morning

I am sitting…

grandparents and Dan

…by a south-facing window in Edmonton, working on the edits of my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal. There is some snow, ice, and beautiful sunlight glowing pink in the trees where magpies mutter and plan. Edmonton appears in the pages of my book and it was here, in the Provincial Archives, that I found a hidden story about my family’s past, one I puzzle through in an essay called “The River Door”. I’ve just been working through this essay and I am filled with a strange yearning to have the years of my childhood to live again so I could ask the questions I am left with. In the photograph, my grandparents are holding my older brother on the porch of the house they built in Beverly. It must be 1951. My grandmother had lost her first husband and brother in the Spanish flu epidemic, then an infant, and somehow, with 8 living children, she found my grandfather and married him. She was as far away from her childhood home in Moravia as I am from her now. My grandfather as far from his village in Bukovyna as I am from him. (I am farther away than that.) I am carrying their story now, sharing it with other members of my family, and soon, with anyone who reads my book. This is weather they would have been familiar with and when I walked out to the bakery earlier, I thought of them, thought of the pillows my grandmother stuffed with goose down, the little quilt she made for my brother out of scraps of her housedresses and my grandfather’s pyjamas, and I was walking with them under the light-filled trees, holding their hands, as I will hold my grandchildren’s hands a little later in the day when we go on an outing.

“cold afraid and crouching in the dark”

greek tales

When I had a telephone conversation with my Edmonton grandson, just a few days before we were due to travel to visit him, he told me he’d been listening to a podcast of stories from Greek mythology. He excitedly told me his favourite god was Zeus and his favourite demigod was Herakles. So I packed the copy of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Wanderings of Odysseus, illustrated by Alan Lee, that his father and uncle and aunt had enjoyed as children. (I couldn’t find its predecessor, Black Ships Before Troy, but I hope it will show up.) We had lunch an hour or so ago and then Grandpa John suggested that H. might like to hear about the Cyclops. H. is five. The gorier the story, the better.

I looked over to see them in the tiny living room of this Airbnb, one reading, the other listening, and I was drawn in to the story all over again. The cunning of Odysseus, the dark cave (“And all this while, the Greeks sat very still in the deep-most inner end of the cave, cold-afraid and crouching in the dark.”), the horror as the Cyclops eats one crew member after another (“devoured as a mountain lion devours his kill, washing down the flesh with long drafts of milk”), and the moment when Odysseus sharpens one end of the giant’s olive-wood staff, hardening it in the fire, heating it again, and plunging it into the Cyclop’s single eye. The next chapter, “The Lord of the Winds”, has been promised for later today. I’m back to working on the edits of Blue Portugal and John is reading on his own. In this cold city, with the sidewalks icy and treacherous, we are as willing as any anticipate the moment when we huddle around the ancient (virtual) fire to listen to the old stories, to shiver in their spell, to dream.