posts

But anyway, in the night…

…because my job
was to stay clean and thankful and mostly imaginary, I have been stealing
what little I can:
                           onions. sandpaper. handfuls of skin.
the dumpster’s metal groan. hurried breath. hot knives.

                                                          –from “Quarantine”, by Franny Choi

 

Here at High Ground, on the edge of the contintent, we are cleaning the eaves-troughs on our house and printshop, working in the garden, hanging out laundry and bringing it in (air-dried sheets, the sweetest of smells). We are thinking of our family spread over the country and we are hoping for the best of outcomes for our fellow citizens. A pandemic carries resonance in its own name: πᾶν, pan, meaning all; δῆμος, demos, meaning people. All of us. No one is safe, though many are alone. I wish there was something I could do about that.

In the night I was at my desk, proof-reading my novella, due out in May. I don’t expect much in the way of fanfare. Book events everywhere are cancelled. A more tech-savvy cohort is making videos and so forth but I can’t see that my skills will rise to that. I will share news as it comes and no doubt John will print a keepsake to celebrate my book and its publication so even if there’s not a launch, I can send small letterpress cards to people who buy the book. More on that in the next month or so.

But anyway, in the night I was sitting at my desk, with my reading glasses on, peering at the pages on the screen, when I heard a crash. Was it in the kitchen? I turned on the light. No. Outside? I turned on the deck light. No. Nothing I could see but the ladder on the deck, ready for more eaves-trough work today.

This morning John wondered why the ladder wasn’t leaning against the railings as it had been when he went to bed. I remembered the crash and told him. We realized some animal must’ve come up on the deck and knocked the ladder over as it passed it. (The ladder had been folded up but on its side against the wooden posts.) The same animal that came onto the deck 3 nights ago and pulled out the big kale plants I keep in a planter by the sliding doors for making smoothies in the mornings? When we looked down the bank this morning, saw bark pulled from a mossy stump and a few big rocks overturned, we realized who was awake and in the neighbourhood. Who would be shadowing our days and even (it seems) our nights, ambling around outside while we sleep, helping himself to kale and a few succulent ants.

sitting

 

shelter in place

doe and fawn

5 days ago I wrote that I’d finished The Occasions, a novella I’d been writing since last summer. In it, I wanted to commemorate a place and human attachments to it, as well as to one another. The novella takes place in a single day and involves preparations for a party to celebrate a significant anniversary. It is also the last party of its kind, for reasons known only to two of the characters. It closes with a group around an outdoor fire.

We listen, as the light fades and the mosquitoes come out to find our arms and ankles. Sit near the fire, Nick suggests, and we move our chairs, find places in the grass to plant our glasses between swallows. The music transports us to another world, where the strings of an oud release long passages so beautiful that some of us brush tears from our eyes.

3 days ago, I described how John and I were preparing ourselves for a form of self-isolation. (Selves-isolation?) We’d shopped, gone to the library (just before it was shut down), and I did a casual inventory of the food we have on hand, the firewood, the wine. The garden and what we can hope for from it. Because we’d had a swim in an empty pool and because the life-guard said she didn’t think the pool would be closing soon, we were looking forward to at least continuing with our swims. But yesterday our regional district closed the recreation centres. I agree with this move, of course, but I’ll miss the water. And then we heard on the news that elective surgery was being cancelled in the province (probably everywhere else too) and that was hard to hear, though understandable in these circumstances. John has been waiting for a double hip replacement and was told by his orthopedic surgeon during a November consultation that his surgery would happen in 4-6 months. So April? Early May? He can’t walk well enough for the hikes we used to love. He does what he can outside (we’ve had two trips up the mountain to bring home chipped cedar for the garden paths from a pile left by someone) but the day before yesterday, hearing of a dear friend’s fall in the garden that shattered his femur, made us realize that even more care will have to be taken. The longer he goes without surgery, the harder it will be for him. For the thousands who are in similar situations. If it was summer, we’d do our morning swim in Ruby Lake before anyone else was there. We’d hear the kingfishers and see the evidence of animals drinking from the lake before our arrival — the prints of deer and bears in the soft sand by the edge of the lake. There’d be loons. Ravens passing overhead. Those days will come again. I hope.

I’m shaken, as we all are, by how quickly our personal safety and our collective safety has been changed and compromised. We will eat well, yes, and we will talk to our friends and family on the phone. I went to the library yesterday and have a stack of books by my bed. I have a work-in-progress and even a title for—well, what? A novella? A long essay? Something, anyway, that came to mind as I woke the other morning. The River Door. Actually, it didn’t so much come to mind as sound itself in my consciousness. In a day or two, I’ll see if that door will open.

In California, people are being asked to “shelter in place”. That’s a term that sounds less lonely than “self-isolate”. Acknowledging that a place can (though not always) shelter us, offer us its care. This morning the fire in our woodstove is warm, sourdough bread is rising on the counter, and the makings for a big vat of bolognese sauce wait in the fridge. I’ll freeze most of the sauce though I’d love to invite a crowd of people to share spaghetti and fresh bread with us, glasses of wine by the fire.

Humans and their hominim ancestors have gathered by fires for a million years. Were those early Homo erectus inhabitants of caves in South Africa cooking on their fires or using them for warmth? Or were they places of congregation? Shelters in place, with sources of heat? The fire in The Occasions is a gathering place, a collective experience. Its inspiration, the stone circle by my vegetable garden, has a little ash in it, from the last time people sat there, talking. How long before we’ll have those occasions again, I wonder?

Ashes denote that Fire was —
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile —

–Emily Dickinson

 

isolate

garlic

The house is quiet. For the past week I’ve listened to the news almost constantly, feeling a little pulse of anxiety or fear each time there were updates of Covid-19 cases, both on the west coast where I live or in any of the cities where loved ones live. Entire countries are locked down. I know the world has experienced pandemics in the past and I have no doubt they were just as frightening and serious. (On my desk, I have copies of death certificates for my relatives who died in 1918 in the Spanish flu epidemic…) Somehow our immediate access to news, to events as they unfold, makes us, or me at least, feel that this one is worse. It certainly occupies a huge space in the collective consciousness.

A younger friend called earlier today to ask if we needed him to buy groceries for us. He wasn’t sure how isolated we were, or wanted to be. I thanked him, his kindness very welcome, but said we were fine. I think we are. We live about 15 minutes from a village with two grocery stores and a pharmacy; there’s a health centre a few minutes from the village. 45 minutes away is a larger town, though just last week we laughed as we drove into it because we noticed a sign (a new one?) indicating “City Center”. The population is about 10,000. There’s a hospital, a couple of grocery stores, a book store, several pharmacies, a few places to eat, a library, and other small-town services. Many of these are along one street and I guess that was where you’d end up if you followed the sign to the City Center. We tend to go to the larger town once a week and our nearby village a couple of times a week. So far it’s seemed safe. No one we know has become sick. The local pool is still open and just this morning we swam, though we were the only ones there. This is not uncommon on a Saturday morning, though. When our family in Ottawa called today, they said that pools, libraries, and museums are all shut down or about to be; schools and daycares too. They said they were wishing they could come to B.C. for a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be nice? The little boys could come swimming with us and their dad could help with firewood.

What does it mean to isolate yourself, to enter into a state or place of isolation? The Oxford definitions are interesting.

(Mass noun) The process or fact of isolating or being isolated.
(As a modifier) Denoting a hospital or ward for patients with contagious or infectious diseases.
(Count noun) An instance of isolating something, especially a compound or microorganism.

Elsewhere, I found this etymological information about the word:

“standing detached from others of its kind,” 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island” (see isle (n.)). English at first used the French word (isole, also isole’d, c. 1750), then after isolate (v.) became an English word, isolated became its past participle.

Sometimes I tell people we live in an isolated area. We do. We have no immediate neighbours. We see no other houses from our house. We have 8.5 acres and we live on a cleared area on one part of that acreage, surrounded by deep woods. Mostly I don’t feel isolated. I’d say, rather, that I feel private. When I work in the garden in good weather, I have the windows and doors open (though screened) so that I can hear music coming from the house. It can be as loud as I want it to be. I like the pure darkness at night.

But to have to isolate ourselves? That’s another thing. We would be fine for quite a long period because I have a good larder—the freezer is full to the brim with berries, fish, meat, soups, broths, boxes of filo pastry, still a couple of pies from the fall, and the shelves in the porch that serves as our pantry are laden with jams, jellies, chutney, salsa, and various other preserves. We have lots of dried beans and rice and lentils. Big bags of flour and other grains. A good quantity of wine. In the garden earlier, I was looking to see what could be planted and where and I rescued a couple of red cabbages that were gnawed on by deer last fall when a bear broke the garden fence. I’d left the cabbages and forgot about them but they recovered quite nicely, though they’re misshapen. (Tomorrow I’ll cook them with apples and some red-wine vinegar.) There’s kale, tiny shoots of miners lettuce, perennial greens like chicory, buck’s horn plantain, dandelions. The chives are up. There’s parsley, other herbs, and the garlic is looking quite robust as it bursts forth from under its mulch of leaves. I planted lettuce and arugula in one of the boxes John built a few years ago. They’re like cold frames, I guess, but with old sliding windows on the south-facing sides, plexiglass panels to put on top when it’s cold, and chicken wire on the other three sides, to keep deer out. (The boxes aren’t in the fenced vegetable garden.) The peas I planted inside are nearly ready to go into their bed and tomato seedlings are coming along.

What I have, and what John has, is work to do. Our own writing, the garden, various repairs. We can go long periods without seeing people and it doesn’t feel strange. Unless it’s mandated. Unless we’re forced to stay home because nowhere is safe.

Tonight we’ll go out to Egmont to have supper at the Backeddy Pub because it’s still open and who knows what will happen next week. Sometimes we see whales from the window there. There’s a woodstove, like at home. I hope that everyone who is sick with this virus recovers, I hope that our health care systems withstand the stresses, I hope that those who are alone have enough to read, enough to eat, and that we all find ways to care for each other.

Now we are going out to the long table

honeysuckle2

Late yesterday afternoon, I surprised myself by writing the final page of my novella, The Occasions. I didn’t expect to finish it. Not yet. I was sort of caught up in the whole ecosystem of the story and I knew it could go one way, with particular consequences, or it could take a turn that would lead, well, I wasn’t sure quite where.

But it ended up in one of my favourite places, around the fire circle near my vegetable garden, late at night, after a party. When I say, “my vegetable garden”, I mean something like it. I’ve set the novella somewhere very similar to where I live and some of the characters resemble people I know and love. But they’re not those people, in significant ways. They fit together in ways the people I know don’t. But I loved writing something set in this part of the world, even if the house was a little bigger, the family differently configured, and the trajectory of both the plot and the narrator’s life very different from my own.

The central event is a party. The narrator wants to do the flowers for it herself. Does that sound familiar?

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book I read once a year. I think it’s a brilliant distillation of marriage, friendship, a changing world, how we remember and reconcile the past, and how we carry important values forward. The flowers. Friendships. How we reconcile ourselves to our aging bodies, the uncertainty of the world around us, where returned soldiers cope or don’t cope with shell-shock, and how we try to preserve what we love.

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Occasions takes place on a single summer day. Children have returned to the family home, friends are expected, and everyone is preparing for a party. There are not chapters but sections, some of them very brief, some of them arranged as calls and responses

Now we are going out to the long table by the garden, glasses in hand, Rosie racing ahead, Tom playing the prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G minor. Now we are finding our places, with the help of Anna who holds the seating plan in her hand by the head of the table. Just there, she says, her hand on Molly Kovac’s back, and the children a little farther down, we’ve mixed you up a bit! Alex helps the children to their chairs and squats to talk to them quietly.

Now we are all seated and Rob is taking bottles of white wine around, Gareth the red. We’ll pour your first glass and then you’re on your own, says Gareth to Sunnera Bhatt, who smiles her wide smile. Adam and Arden are placing platters on the bright French cloths, the bowls of salad, baskets of bread. Water is poured for those not drinking wine. Rosie has been chased away. Twice. Now Nick is rising, asking for a moment to share a poem he considers the appropriate invitation to the evening. I’d like to have printed this for you, with a woodcut or something, he says, but somehow it didn’t happen. The first stanza has us all quiet:

It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves

We listen to the poem, its simple mysterious language, and we want to be at the place described. We want to be there, “the river…muscled at rapids with trout”, and then we are there, here, as the poem reaches its conclusion:

                       there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.

                                                     (lines of poetry from “Visit” by A.R. Ammons)

The party in The Occasions takes place outside, at long tables laid for dinner under the honeysuckle, and after the meal, there is dancing on the grass—one son plays a cello and his wife, an oud—and chairs are pulled close to the fire when the sun goes down. I began it on July 3, 2019, and I finished yesterday afternoon, and all fall and winter I spent time smelling the honeysuckle, smelling the cedar smoke from the fire. A summer day, in both memory and in imagination. A summer evening. The people gathered and the owls calling (not in Greek, not in Sanskrit, but simply their own sound). I’d thought there might be a late swim but then I realized everyone had had wine, and there were children to consider. Instead, there’s music, and Laphroaig.

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too ‘that is all’. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.

                                 –from Mrs. Dalloway

The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle

candles

Pod svícnem bývá největší tma. The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. The phrase occurs about half-way through Ariana Neumann’s extraordinary book, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. When her father, a Czech émigré who’d built an industrial empire in post-war Venezuela, died, Ariana wondered if she’d be able to learn something of his previous life, something he’d firmly refused to talk about during her childhood and beyond. She didn’t even know he was Jewish until she was in university and someone told her that her name and her bearing were Jewish. She did know there were mysteries. She’d found his name on the Pinkas Synagogue memorial in Prague on a trip there when her father was still alive in Caracas. His name, with his birthdate and a question mark elegantly calligraphed onto the wall. When she asked him about it — “What does it mean, Papi? If your name is on the wall, they must think you are dead.”– his answer was cryptic: “What does it mean?” he said, chuckling quietly. “It means that I tricked them. That is exactly what it means.” On a later trip to Prague with him, there were moments when she realized that the past was something too terrible for him to share.

Hans Neumann’s extended family was large and accomplished. His father owned a paint factory in Prague, his mother loved the house they bought in Libcice, on the Vltava River and kept it as a haven for her sons and the wider family. Their lives were rich and purposeful. In 1933, news of anti-Jewish laws and restrictions in neighbouring Germany filtered through to the Neumanns. Two uncles had already left for the USA. They urged the rest of the family to immigrate too. They didn’t. The Germans moved into the Czech Sudetanland in 1938. The rest is history, though the personal details of this history were unknown to Ariana until after her father’s death.

He left papers, a few photographs, a collection of watches. She knew of her father’s meticulous obsession with time-pieces, how he’d spend hours taking them apart and repairing them. The papers led her to a vast network of people, the children and grandchildren of that Czech family. Too many of them perished in camps. Otto and Ella Neumann, Ariana’s unknown grandparents. Uncles. Cousins. The survivors were few but some of them had bits and pieces of papers, some of them remembered someone else who might know something of the story, and through dedicated detective work, Ariana reconstructs her father’s past, which is also a larger past: her narrative will have familiar moments for many. She learns of her father’s hiding place within a wall of the paint factory as he waited for papers that would allow him to escape transportation. How did he pass the time in a compartment a few square feet in size? He took apart his watch, carefully observing the mechanical components, and he put it together again.

The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. This phrase inspired the act that was the means of Hans’ survival. It’s worth reading this book to discover what that was. It’s worth reading this book for the beauty of the writing, for the careful construction of its narrative, balancing a personal family story against the terrible historical events. I was reminded a little of East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that its author also uncovers his hidden family story within the fabric of the Second World War, specifically the Nazi crimes against humanity. Both writers have a similar tenacity and drive to piece together the puzzle of their family history, knowing as they do so that significant parts might never be clear.

Sometimes I lose my bearings. I forget that time has passed. And for that briefest moment, I want to rush again to my father. I want to tear along the checkered floor of the hall to the long windowless room and, as he raises his visor and looks up from his watches, explain that I finally solved the puzzle.

redux: “all those waters changing as we changed”

This post was from March 6, 2017. We did all gather in Edmonton that spring, the rivers are still changing (and unchanged), and I have a box of Euclid’s Orchard, the book I was just finishing copy edits for when writing the post. If you’d like a copy,  let me know. In fact, if you’re interested in any of my books, let me know. In honour of approaching spring, I will offer any of them at 15% off, shipping at cost.

__________________________________________

I had a difficult relationship with my father. I loved him and I believe he loved me. But we couldn’t talk to one another easily. He found me remote, as I found him. He taught me some important things, though, and I miss him. (He died in 2009.) I talk to him more and more, to try to limn the dimensions of our relationship — I always thought it kind of one-dimensional but realize now it was complicated and even nuanced. In my forthcoming book, Euclid’ Orchard, there is an essay about this: “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”. In the essay I talk to my father in a way we were never able to talk in the years I lived with my parents, and afterwards, when he and my mother visited us here. I tell him how I wish things had been different. It might be too bitter. But it’s honest, if that matters.

The old-fashioned knots you’d tied long ago wouldn’t loosen enough to let you take ease in a chair on the deck of a cabin. And by then the fish knife had gone to my son. Herakleitos on the Yalakom River, on the Cowichan, on the far-seeing MacKenzie where you were young, the Red Deer, all those waters changing as we changed—and were ever the same. There were roads that led to them, and away.

I think about my father a lot now that I see my sons immersed in fatherhood. They are tender and loving with their children.

pass-boys-and-their-babies

My father was born in 1926 to very poor immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner and he was illiterate. No bedtime stories. My father grew up not knowing anything about his parents’ parents, their extended families. I explore this in other essays in the collection, trying to map his emotional geography, which is now my geography, my maps scribbled with the cryptic markings of love and loneliness. Of regret and sorrow.

We spent the weekend in Vancouver, with our son Brendan, daughter-in-law Cristen, and their two young children. Our daughter — Kelly’s cherished Aunty Angie (“My Auntie Angie.”) — joined us for part of the time. We ate great meals and laughed a lot and had some outings that I know will be happy memories for Kelly. (Blue frogs at the Aquarium! Big fish! The soft pink feet on the ducks in the tropical conservatory…) Kelly has plans for May when we will visit her family in Edmonton and she is thrilled that her Auntie Manon, Uncle Forrest, and cousin Arthur will be there at the same time. (We are all going to build a new porch for Brendan and Cristen’s house.) She is very excited at the prospect of sharing the double stroller with Arthur. And of throwing stones into Mill Creek with him. By then Henry might be able to throw a stone too. Over the weekend, he was happy to lie on the floor with his Grandpa John, pushing toys back and forth.

grandpa-john-and-henry

The road that leads to Edmonton from the west coast is one my family drove many summers to visit our grandparents who lived in Beverly, in a small plain house on a quiet street near the river. It was a river my father remembered in his later years — the smell of poplars coming into leaf, its dangers at spring melt. And the Red Deer, that flowed past his family’s first home in Drumheller. All the rivers of our shared geography, unchanged, and constantly changing. Although my father never read Herakleitos, I found him in Guy Davenport’s elegant translation. I found him over and over, changed and unchanged. “The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.” It never was. But where else can I look?

“The finest hour that I have seen/Is the one that comes between”

from underground

One of those mornings, the sky soft and promising after a few days of chilly rain and snow creeping down the mountain behind our house, one of those mornings when you turn to each other in bed, saying, Where did they go, the years? Because in another month, you’ll be listening for Swainson’s thrushes just beyond your window, the robins, the long whistles of the varied thrushes, you’ll be planting out the peas you’ve started by the woodstove, looking for the first wild violets, the bleeding hearts.

Where the years went I can’t say;
I just turned around and they’ve gone away.

Which year was it you saw the wolf lope across the grass, the sow bear with her twins in the old orchard, which year was it when you stood with some of the grandchildren around a bonfire, in March, burning decades of windfall?

I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers.
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago.

Was it only last year the snowshoe hare hid under daylilies when you discovered it trying to wriggle under the new fence, was it four years ago, or six, when you dug up a clump of crocus, blooming underground, buried during the reconstruction of the septic field, was it ten years ago, or twenty, when the dogs curled up in the woodshed while deer pillaged the irises in the small pond?

The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day.
It’s when the darkness rolls away.

So you listen again to Kate Wolf, her radiant voice gathering all the years together, where they begin, where they end.