lines for the wagon of heaven

wagon of heaven


On December 21, I was outside looking for the Great Conjunction. Maybe I saw it, in the southwest, just beyond the half-moon caught in the branches of a tall fir. I saw something bright, yellowy-red, and then I went to get binoculars. When I returned, it was something else that caught my eye: a blurry group of stars suddenly clear in the lenses of my binoculars. How many times have I looked south and not noticed Ursa Minor tipping its bucket over the sky just beyond my house?


The wagon of heaven, in the Babylonian star compendia, observations and divinations appearing about the 12th c. BCE. And yes, it looked more like a wagon to me than a bear. A barrow, like the wheelbarrow in our woodshed, tipped up against the logs.


so much depends


Other names for Ursa Minor: dog’s tail, trail of light.


Tonight I will be the woman in her nightdress, bare-footed, on the deck under stars, with binoculars focused on the heavens. Send me your star charts, send me your old stories, send me straight back to bed where someone warm waits for me, starry-eyed.


Maybe I saw the meteor shower in Ursa Minor, a blur of starry light tipped from a wagon high above my house on the longest night.

“the long calendar of the year” (Dickens)

northwest window

But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…

I’ve always loved Christmas. I’ve loved the carols, baking the foods we love to eat this time of year, the parties, the lights we string around windows and through ivy draped over top of the leaded windows in our entrance area. I love choosing presents, making them when I can, and I love preparing the bags we give to our friends: jars of marinated olives, small loaves of white chocolate fruit cake, shortbread, little bowls. I’ve loved the anticipation of family members arriving, often in time for John’s birthday on the 19th; traditionally this has been the start of our season, a party for 6 or 10 or 25, depending.

This year I couldn’t feel the spirit enter my heart for the longest time. Why bake when we’re not going to be seeing anyone? Why prepare the olives (though the huge jars bought at the Parthenon in Vancouver on the day before John’s surgery in October were waiting in the cool porch). Why. I did shop. I packaged up gifts for my children and their children. I made a quilt for a daughter-in-law’s birthday (today!), stitching by the fire, and at least for that time I found a kind of peace in the movement of the needle in and out, pulling its blue thread along. When we sat down to work out charitable gifts, it felt overwhelming. So many who need help and a limited budget to work with. It’s just been a hard fall for a number of reasons, for so many of us. I wasn’t unhappy but perhaps I was too busy and stressed to understand that what I always loved about Christmas was still potent and waiting. I wasn’t even sure I’d bring a tree into the house to hang with the old ornaments, a star on top.

…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…

Last week I made the gingerbreads to package up for children young and not so young. I made shortbread. Not the white chocolate fruit cake, golden with apricots, Smyrna figs, hazelnuts, and jeweled with dried cherries. Not this year. And little by little, I began to feel moments of joy. Was it when I was filling the birdfeeder and a cloud of chickadees descended, one landing on my hand, the elegant nuthatch who travels with them keeping its distance? Or when I realized that we still needed to celebrate John’s birthday properly, even if it meant setting the table for just the two of us? A blue cloth, our Midwinter Moon plates (bought in Bath when we first knew each other and wanted to make a home together), napkins with sunflowers, the candles lit, the Waterford glasses shining. There was even cake—hazelnut torte with ganache (I scaled back my usual method for 8…). We raised our glasses to health and happiness for all.

Through the magic of gadgets, we watched The Tailor of Gloucester on Friday night with two of our grandchildren. It’s such a lovely story, full of music, mice making tiny buttonholes with cherry-coloured twist, the rats who find the kegs of wine singing and carousing in grand style, and courtly dancing. Do you have a Christmas tree, my grandson asked, and I told him, no, but we’ll go up the mountain like we always do and cut a small one. He described theirs and his voice was full of joy.

In the long calendar of the year, there are the dark days and then the ones rich with light. I was awake at 2:02 a.m. at the moment of the longest night. I was awake, filled with hope. As the days grow longer, I am hopeful that we will come together again, all of us, in person, to take up our lives in community again. As friends, as families, as citizens. Hopeful that a small tree will hold the riches of the year.

When the last of the spirits shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own gravestone, his name on it serving to shake him finally to a new realization of what could happen if he remained miserly and tiny-souled, Scrooge has a true change of heart, from the man who asked, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”, to the man who becomes a model of generosity and good will.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

Next year, I won’t put off making the white chocolate fruitcakes or scale down the birthday torte preparations but plan the feasts for all those who have traditionally come and those who might like to again.

the chilly notes of old carols

christmas cards

Almost every year since 1980, we’ve printed Christmas cards on our 19th c. Chandler&Price platen press. It’s treadle-driven, with an elegant fly-wheel, and when it’s in action, I can hear it from the kitchen, the rumble of its gears, and the steady thump of the treadle. I say “we” but John prints the linocuts that I make at the kitchen table after softening the lino against the window of the woodstove. I’m not an artist but almost every year I come up with something that we match with passages of poetry, old carols, a few sentences from an essay. The blue boat you can see at the back of the photograph is one of the carol ships we used to watch from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. The boats would move in and out of the little bays, their rigging strung with lights, and you could hear people singing carols on their decks. Those of us watching from shore would try to match our voices to the ones that drifted across the dark water. One year the card was our house on its hill. Another showed our cat sitting on a windowsill. Once a quilt block (Variable Star), once a pear, once a grouse in cotoneaster, once a pygmy owl on the bough of fir where we spotted it on a walk. Last year there was supposed to be a Steller’s jay but I wasn’t happy with the inking and said I wouldn’t mail it out. John went quiet. (It’s a lot of work to set the block, to set the type, to print—often in two colours, which means two inkings, two times through the press.) He mailed a few and somewhere there’s a stack of under-inked jays with rather dashing crests.

This year, there won’t be a card. When I said the press is treadle-driven, I mean that there’s an iron treadle that is pedaled with the right foot. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know that John had double hip surgery in October and suffered from a compressed sciatic nerve that affected his peroneal nerve, resulting in a paralyzed right foot. It may or may not recover, though he’s experiencing more feeling in his foot and more movement, and we are hopeful. With some work, he will no doubt be able to figure out a good way to use the treadle again but not yet. He has some plans for press work in the new year and who knows, there might be something to send out then.

I think my favourite of all the cards is the one on the left, in front—two coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Every year we walk over to the creek to witness the return of the fish to the tiny creek running down off Mount Hallowell to where it enters Sakinaw Lake. The fish swim the length of the lake in summer and early fall, waiting until there’s enough water in the creek to allow them to make their way to the gravel beds where they’ll dig redds and spawn. Eagles wait in the huge cedars and coyotes lurk and once I saw a bear dragging a fish away on the opposite bank of the creek as we walked towards the water. Watching the salmon puts life, and death, in perspective.

Mid-winter is the season of miracles—children returning from distant enterprises; the chilly notes of old carols in the air; ancient stories of birth and death; two dark red fish sidling together in a riffle overhung with ferns, fish who have come such a vast distance through rain and under stars to find this unlikely water; a few loose eggs in the gravel glistening like a rare and costly gift.

—from “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek”, published in Phantom Limb, Thistledown Press, 2007.

Later this morning we’ll go over to the creek. I don’t know if the fish are there yet. Some years they arrive in early December. We’ve watched them at New Year. So who knows. But we need this now. We need to remember the ancient stories that sustain us, all of us, as the northern hemisphere tilts its furthest distance from the sun and we prepare for the shortest day of the year. We will be the couple, arm in arm, on the bank of the creek, looking into its fast clean water, as the fish swim past barely noticing us. And if you listen carefully, across the dark water, you might hear one of us singing softly:

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born*

*this is one of my favourite Christmas moments, recited by Burgess Meredith on the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin

wild mountain thyme


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 ?

redux: “…we may quite literally become ocean.”

From 2014, then reposted in 2019, and now, again, because this is music I need right now and maybe you do too.


Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisis, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.


how to do you say “wind chime” in Czech?

How to do you say “wind chime” in Czech? Ah, well, I know that. It’s větrná zvonkohra. I know because it’s the title of John’s new book, a collection of his poems translated into Czech by the wonderful Jiří Měsíc, a young Czech poet and scholar currently living and teaching in Spain. For the past few years, Jiří has been corresponding with John about the poems and I’ve loved hearing the details of their discussions about specific words, idioms, meaning. The book comes out this month, published by Protimluv in Ostrava. In an ideal world, the world before the pandemic (which would also have been a world in which John’s hip surgery would have been last spring), we would have gone to the Czech Republic this fall to help launch the book.  And when there’s a return to travel (and good health), we hope to make a belated trip to do that. We will also celebrate Jiří’s new book on Leonard Cohen as well as the fact that his translations of John’s poems have won him a prize from the Czech Literary Translators Guild. (If you read Czech, you might be interested in learning more here.)

wind chime

When we met Jiri in Ostrava in 2012, he and John participated in a poetry festival curated by Protimluv.Here’s John, with Jiří to his right and Petr Kopecky, to his left. (Petr is a scholar of North American literature, among other things, and he will forever be dear to me because he drove me to my grandmother’s village in 2012.)

poetry in Ostrava

It was an extraordinary event, filmed for Czech television, the room filled with people who loved poetry, and I remember feeling like we’d found our people. The prospect of returning to them is exciting.

When John won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2006, for his book Stumbling in the Bloom, there were a lot of readings connected with being shortlisted and then winning. He often read “Wind Chime”. These are the opening lines:

Come sway in its ear-level lilt and lapses, fond instrument
day-long of come what may. It lolls, an insatiate

tongue for the random, whim’s trinket, net
of the invisible, middle-sister to leaf

and sail, shimmering
suspension in silver wire…

Who could have imagined then that the fond instrument would find another voice, in Czech, ringing across the oceans? Across the wide and beautiful world?

swimming in the sky, angels in the woodshed

A small worry has been firewood. We worked on a pile of cedar logs, felled a few years ago, while we could, while John could still handle the heavy saw, and we also had a guy bring two cords (which is always less, no matter whom it is: the polite question when you call them, “So it’s a real cord?”, and yes, they promise, and then the wood comes and it’s never a cord). But it wasn’t going to be quite enough to get us through the winter. We have electric baseboard heaters but that’s a very expensive way to heat a house.

And then a friend called to ask what we needed him to do. Could I do some yard work for you, he wondered. Could we — meaning him and his young son–split kindling for you? As soon as John mentioned the cedar logs, he said right away that they’d come and cut them, split them. Could they use our saw? Absolutely. This morning they arrived in their truck and spent a good few hours down in the old orchard, cutting and splitting and filling the truck. When they arrived up at the house, I brought out muffins and coffee, and we talked (at a distance) by the woodshed, which was looking pretty depleted. But then they unloaded and stacked the sweet-scented cedar behind the dry fir. In a few weeks it will be ready to burn. I thought of Du Fu (I know I write about him often) with his firewood gate in Chengdu City, a man who understood the importance of heat in the cold months. And the knowledge of life’s

After the battle, many new ghosts cry,
The solitary old man worries and grieves.
Ragged clouds are low amid the dusk,
Snow dances quickly in the whirling wind.
The ladle’s cast aside, the cup not green,
The stove still looks as if a fiery red.
To many places, communications are broken,
I sit, but cannot read my books for grief.

It wasn’t grief that kept me from reading my books this morning but gratitude for angels. I looked out to see a father throwing wood from the back of a truck and a son stacking, his red tuque bright in the December air.

After they left, I pulled on my bathing suit and we went down to the lake. The sky has been so beautiful today and I said as we walked under the huge firs, If we hadn’t come, we’d have missed this.

I swam in that sky, across the clouds held within the body of the lake. And came home to warm myself by the stove. As I type this, “Angel from Montgomery” has just come on the radio and I’m smiling and singing along, though of course I’ve changed the lyrics a little: Send me two angels from Halfmoon Bay. (Because they did come, a small miracle.)


winter swimming

december lake

Everything truly changed here on March 16, 2020, because that was a day when we would have gone to the local pool for a swim but it closed that day due to Covid-19. We swam on the 14th. I noted in my daybook that my distance was 1.3 kms. We went for supper to the pub in Egmont that evening and the tables were widely spaced. Joe Stanton was playing his guitar and singing in his wonderful gravelly voice. But even then we realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to be in a restaurant and when we drove home along the dark Egmont Road, we knew we wouldn’t have a meal away from home until it was safe to do so. What does safe mean? I keep adjusting my measure. We did have some meals out in the summer at the pub in Madeira Park because we could eat on the deck with an ocean breeze blowing viruses away (we hoped); we met friends there very occasionally until September when it no longer felt like a good idea.

We started swimming in the lake near us in late May. The water was cold but the days were often warm and it just seemed necessary to swim again. We went down every morning before anyone else was there and the green water, holding early sunlight, was such a solace. I think in water. I swim back and forth, planning how I will proceed with particular writing, or I order essays in a collection I am working on, or I tease out a problem of some other sort. The water warmed up as the days moved into summer. And by late September, when the water was cooling off, the pool was open again. You have to book times and often you are the only people there.

And in October we were preparing for John’s surgery mid-month. The time went by so quickly. There were 10 days in Vancouver, him in hospital or spending two nights at the little suite of rooms we’d reserved for me nearby, and me in those rooms or else walking back and forth to the hospital. A few fraught trips to pharmacies for various pieces of equipment that were deemed necessary because the surgery went sort of sideways. And then home. A return to hospital, this time in Sechelt, where our family doctor and others worked out a plan for some issues that developed after John’s surgery.

Sometimes what you lose is a sense of being alive yourself. I don’t mean I’ve been unhappy or anything dire. A little lonely from time to time–in those rooms in Vancouver when I couldn’t sleep and the branches of the maples brushed the window of the bedroom. Or driving back and forth to the hospital in Sechelt, again on very little sleep, hoping I was up to the task of caring for us both. Once he was home again and I was confident he would be ok for an hour or so, I began to swim again in the pool, rushing out and rushing home. As soon as John’s surgeon said it was ok, he came too. We try to book 3 swims a week.

The day before yesterday I told John I was going to begin swimming in the lake again, too. He wasn’t happy about it. What if something happened, you’re 65 years old, what if you ran into trouble, he said. I won’t be able to help you. (Right now the only footwear that works with his paralyzed foot is a big snowboot with the felt liner removed.) I listened but I was still going to go. Not for long. Not the first time. I knew it was a good idea to wear a tuque and gradually increase the time I spent in the water. Reluctantly he agreed to come along.

I did wear a tuque. And it was very cold. But also exhilarating, the water silky the way it is in summer. I felt every cell in my body rejoice. And then I didn’t feel much because I was numb. But I did a few strokes back and forth and know that I’m going to do this at least twice a week. I quietly said to the water as I entered it yesterday, I’ve missed you. It’s a lake I’ve known for 40 years and I want my relationship with it to continue through these winter months when so much of our lives is constrained and a little fearful. When I was stretching my arms into the cold water, I thought of the mornings I swam in an unheated pool in Ukraine, frost on the sunflowers fringing the water. I felt alive then too, at home in a body that often feels old and kind of lumpy. The memory of those swims sustained me through the first part of the pandemic when I was making a little book of the essay I wrote about that trip and these swims will guide me through these dark winter months, the lake bottom dreaming of how the sunlight gathers there on June mornings, mergansers leading their young from stream-mouth to stream-mouth, and the kingfisher alert on one of the sentinel cedars I use to mark my progress.

Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine, the taste of cherry-filled varenyky, sweet butter on dark bread. Mornings I swam in an unheated pool, the bottom littered with drowned insects, while all around me mist rose from the valley below our mountain slope. The mountains above me, source of the Dniester, Tisza and Vistula Rivers, the upper streams of the Black Cheremosh and the White, the Prut. I thought of those mountains forming a long spine to the Beskids in the Czech Republic, where my grandmother was born, 2 years after my grandfather, though they didn’t meet until 1919, in the badlands of Alberta, she a widow, and him? I have no idea of his romantic history, though in his small archive of papers there are two photographs, one of two women, taken in Chernivtsi, one of whom resembles him enough to be a sister, and another of a woman with a generous mouth, dressed in a fur vest like the Hutsul women wore. Everything I am remembering, burnished with light too faint to read by, like the moonlight that came through my curtains at Sokilske, haunting the room like old history.
(from “Museum of the Multitude Village”, an essay from Blue Portugal)

morning lake 2

redux: stories of snow and shooting stars

Note: As I was swimming this morning, easing out some pain in my lower back, I realized it was 2 years ago that I fell on ice and fractured my coccyx. When I wrote this post, I hadn’t yet seen the ophthalmologist in Sechelt who diagnosed damaged retinas in first one eye and then other other and who over the course of a couple of weeks repaired them.


We spent five days in Edmonton, visiting our family there. It was cold. Of course it was. Walking from the car to the house, I slipped on ice and my feet shot out from under me. Maybe I cracked my tailbone. The pain was (and is) pretty intense. But this is an injury for which there’s no treatment apart from pain-killers and time. It was wonderful, though, to spend those days with loved ones. One afternoon, John and I stayed with the kids while their parents worked. We made a gingerbread house which was a big hit, particularly the gumdrops. (Our house had long drippy streams of icing and did not resemble the suggested version on the box. And luckily Grandpa John was able to repair the broken wall with extra icing, though it kept threatening to cave in again.) Afterwards he read Kelly and Henry a story about other houses and a wolf who was able to blow them down.


Aunty Angie came for three nights from Victoria and so there was a trip to the new museum, tickets for a performance of “Nutcracker in a Nutshell”, and a sleigh-ride around the snowy streets of Strathcona, pulled by Sugar and Spice, blond Belgians from Rattray.

sugar and spice on whyte avenue

On our last day in Edmonton, I wondered at the shooting stars, long streams of silver, I was seeing to the side of my right eye. And the tangles of, what, hair?, that kept drifting across my vision. After some calls to various medical facilities, Brendan and John took me in a blizzard across the low bridge over the North Saskatchewan, its surface a constellation of ice stars, to an emergency room where I was examined, then examined again because I was lucky enough that a resident ophthalmologist just happened to be in the hospital, and told I almost certainly have a posterior vitreous detachment. I won’t say I wasn’t a little scared but it was also strangely beautiful to have a glimpse of my inner eye. The ophthalmologist was puzzled when I asked why I was seeing a particular landscape and a skyscape and thought maybe it was my brain trying to make sense of the instruments and their intense light. Her immediate concern was to try to make sure I could have a follow-up examination at home this week or she was going to insist I stay in Edmonton for further retinal examinations. But finally we left, drove back in the blizzard, and ate Cristen’s delicious dinner (saved for us to enjoy with the bottle of good wine John had bought and the box of assorted macarons I’d chosen at an excellent bakery the day before).


The next morning we woke to a foot of snow over the cars on our street. But people were out and about and so we packed our rental car and drove carefully to the airport. Shooting stars were the least of my worries as we passed abandoned vehicles along the Calgary Trail. We flew home with stories of snow and those silver stars and beautiful children on a horse-drawn sleigh and the mystery of what my eye saw, and didn’t. I am seeing a specialist tomorrow to have another dilation but I think that I will be fine. I think of that wonderful poem, “Stories of Snow”,  by P.K. Page—I was lucky enough to hear her read this several times in her beautiful patrician voice—and what it tells us about vision:

And stories of this kind are often told
in countries where great flowers bar the roads
with reds and blues which seal the route of snow –
as if, in telling, raconteurs unlock
the colour with its complement and go
through to the area behind the eyes
where silent, unrefractive whiteness lies.

“buzz of hundreds of years old trees and whispering of a leaf”

Yesterday my daughter-in-law sent us a photograph of something our older grandson had made that day. He is 5, interested in dinosaurs, fossils, sharks, stories about the Greek heroes (from Robert Graves), and other stuff typical of kids his age. But this surprised me.

Arthur's concerto

I love its sense of rhythm, as though he is truly trying to notate something he has heard. We were discussing it on WhatsApp and I said it also looked a little like Hebrew, to which his father replied that Arthur wanted him to sing it and insisted he read from right to left.

When I was in grade one, a year or so older than Arthur is now, I remember being filled with an urgency to make something. A story, an object: something. What did I do with that urgency? I tried to write stories. I had the vocabulary but not the dexterity to print quickly enough to keep up with my thinking. I’d be imagining the story but I couldn’t quite figure out how to put it on paper. Ours was not a quiet household and perhaps I didn’t have a place to try to do this. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother and I had two older brothers who filled the house with noise and activity.

When I look at Arthur’s composition, I remember that urgency. His lines, free of bars or time signature, move like something alive. Like music. Last year I listened obsessively to Janáček’s “On an Overgrown Path”, a cycle of 13 piano pieces inspired by Moravian folk music and (to my ear) childhood memories of the landscape of Hukvaldy, his birthplace, not too far from where my grandmother was born. Maybe I want to hear these memories in the music but listen this piece, for example—”The barn owl has not flown away”—and you might agree with me. Imagine owls and huge trees and little breezes in the twilight as a child leans on a fence, watching. Listening.

What does Arthur’s music sound like? I might try to play it on a recorder if I can remember the fingering. In the meantime, I remember what Janáček wrote about his music, what he hoped it contained.


Everything that came along: people, birds, bees, gnats; humming of wind, clap of thunder; swirling of a waterfall, buzz of hundreds of years old trees and whispering of a leaf, when it fell on cold soil in the autumn.”