“the beauty of innuedoes” (Wallace Stevens)


The problem, I decided, as I was swimming the last of my 1000 meters, in my favourite lane, the windows looking out to alders and maples, a grey sky, the problem is that I don’t know if I should expand this draft I’m currently editing to make it a full-length memoir, or if I should stay with my original thinking about it as an essay. I wrote it in sections. Some of them are philosophical, about the nature of the artistic (which in this instance is male) gaze, what it assumes, what it takes, and what it gives. Because if you were once an artist’s model, however uncomfortable you were, and are, with that experience, if you wait long enough, you are given something valuable. When I look at the paintings of myself that we have in our house, when I look through a folio of drawings that may or may not be me, when I look at the images sent to me by a collector who has several paintings of me, I see myself as a young woman, caught in a moment that caused her anxiety, even pain, but who stepped away with a kind of strength I am grateful for.

So some sections are philosophical, some are hinged with theory, moving back and forth between conjectures of shame, guilt, and agency, and some are purely narrative. What happened next. Where I went, and why. What I’d done earlier that made me recall the Karyatids holding up the Erectheion, the ancient temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens, and what I did later that brought them to mind again. Not a straight-forward memoir, then. But an essay in the way I’ve approached the material, the known and unknown, and followed one thing after another after another. Would a memoir have more luck finding a publisher, an audience? That’s never been my concern so maybe I won’t even think about the possibilities.

By the time I was finishing my swim, I had more or less decided to do what I need to do. To expand, to adjust, and to condense in areas that feel a bit long-winded. And to let the piece be what it becomes. I came home to see it spread out on the dining table like a puzzle, the pieces a little confusing but the final pattern inevitable. In a few minutes I’ll have one last look and then gather up the pages to allow the table to be used over the next ten days when some of my family will be here. When I was awake in the night, I thought of how I will organize the images in this essay, I thought of the pages spread out on the table, I thought about the difficulty of names and feelings and how much is my story, how much shares a boundary with another’s story, and whether that matters. Does it matter? To imply, to suggest, to actually name? I nod to Wallace Stevens.

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

a few lines on a snowy morning



The other night as the snow was falling, softly, softly, the trees white in smudgy moonlight, I heard coyotes yipping by the old orchard. Heard them, at least 2, calling back and forth. This way, or this way, or this?


Walking up the driveway after my swim, car left by the highway, I saw their tracks, one set heading into the bush by the turn, one set across the orchard. One of them had paused at near the broken gate to pee.


Cleaning the back rooms to get them ready for a visiting family later in the week, I remember looking out to see a coyote passing the house. I was writing about orchards and family, an essay that became the title piece of Euclid’s Orchard, and I recorded the moment at my desk.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad, dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.


Do you remember, I’ll ask my son, do you remember the summer that the young pup visited each morning, pausing at the edge of the woods to eat salal berries, and do you remember how we watched it enter the old doghouse, empty since Tiger died, turning itself around twice, and sitting in the opening.



In the night, listening to the coyotes, I wished for the time to know everything again.

redux: “the vacant place at the table”

morning, with rushnyk

Note: I wrote this a year ago. So many more vacant places at Ukrainian tables this morning. So much sorrow. Yet what an astonishing country. What courage. Slava Ukraini!


In Ukraine, we saw kalyna everywhere, the high-bush cranberry beloved for its culinary uses and also as a symbol for resistance to political oppression. In the garden of the poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv, we sat in the shade of kalyna and watched feral kittens play on the ground. The wooden house behind us served as a small museum, the kind of museum I wrote about in my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays; there were cases filled with the poet’s clothing, his sketches, drafts of his poems, maybe even this poem, his most beloved:

When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.

I was wishing for kalyna this morning, wanting to do something practical in honour of my grandfather’s country as I listened to the terrible news of Russia’s aggression. What could I do? I brought out the lengths of rushnyk I bought in the market in Kosiv. I loved them in Ukraine, draped around ikons in the churches, wrapped around bread as it came to the table, and the more I learned of the rushnyk’s meanings — as a cloth for ceremonies, for wrapping a newborn, for presenting to newly married couples, a symbol for the hearth, a mediator between the living and the dead—the more I was drawn to them. Mine are kept in a trunk but today I brought two out, made muffins dense with blueberries, wrapped them in the beauty of red berries and stylized flowers, and spread the other rushnyk, a length of fabric embroidered with the traditional emblems of Bukovyna, given to me by my distant cousins who drove for hours to meet us in our hotel above Tiudiv. Today I will pause when I see the cloths in my kitchen, remembering the kalyna bushes in that peaceful garden in Kyiv, the laughter of my cousins, their cheekbones (my cheekbones), remembering the dusty village where my grandfather was born and which he left, its plain houses and nearby river quiet on the afternoon we visited, and maybe I’ll play some Ukrainian music, the beautiful “Kalyna”:

The Sun rose over the hill;
Rose the folk joyfully
From happy slumbers.
But all, all the long night through
A mother slept not.
Weeping, she could see
The vacant place at table,
Lone in the dusk,
And she wept bitterly.

from nadya's family

do we think like rivers



The week before last I wrote about the disruptions of my morning swim and how I wasn’t sure I’d be able to continue. I took a week off and then returned to the pool, going slightly later, hoping that the aggressive swimmers would be finished. Mostly it’s working. The lanes are narrow and it’s hard to share and I felt that I was the one expected to shift and change to accommodate the men who thrashed their way back and forth. I was resentful but who was hurt by me staying away? Ha. I realized that I was missing not only my swim but also the thinking that happens as I do my laps.

I wonder if this is true for everyone, that thinking, deep thinking, is an active process that takes you into it as water takes a body? As currents move a body through water? That thinking is dynamic, animated? Psychologists like Charles Fernyhough equate thinking with language, or at least that thinking requires language, that thinking is a kind of inner speech. But I have to say that my own deep thinking isn’t exactly a stream of inner talking, isn’t first and foremost language driven. Using language now to try to describe it makes me realize how far from my experience these words are.

When I take up a quilt to work on it, I am taking up thinking. As I ease my needle carrying thread through the layers of fabric, I am immersed in the movement, not as an analogy but as a process. The image at the top of this post is a little section of the back of a quilt I sewed to help me make sense of my circulatory system, of the atmospheric river system that resulted in so much damage in the fall of 2021. I pieced a top of long strips of red cotton and strips of (mostly shorter) blue Japanese cottons, using a piece of hand-dyed indigo cotton as a backing. As I was basting the back to the top, with a layer of organic cotton batting in the middle, I realized that the backing was an old experiment. I’d made a little run of salmon across the centre of the cloth (a white sheet I was no longer using), waxing them in place, and then dipping the sheet in what was left of a vat of indigo dye. I wasn’t wildly happy with the results so tucked the sheet away, finding it years later when I needed a back for the atmospheric rivers. Finding it years later, I realized how perfect it would be as a back for a quilt about rivers.

frozen fog

The whole time I was piecing and sewing, my mind was in the rivers. The quilting itself was simply an long meandering line, echoing the way rivers appear on maps; I think there are only 4 lines over the entire quilt, each of them endstopped with a tiny shell button. Stitching, I was part of the current. I was sewing myself into water, into its complex flow and urgency. Sometimes my own safety was precarious, my own agency abandoned. I didn’t have words for the experience but did that mean it didn’t happen? I think now of Oliver Sack’s wonderful River of Consciousness:

If the stream of thought is too fast, it may lose itself, break into a torrent of superficial distractions and tangents, dissolve into a brilliant incoherence, a phantasmagoric, almost dreamlike delirium.

It is an incoherence but it has meaning, this kind of deep thinking. It buoys me up in the current and brings me to a beautiful awareness of meaning. Some nights I wake and there I am in the darkness, part of the starry sky, taken into it on a river of dream. A dreamlike delirium. Yet there is meaning in the delirium. I would say it’s a process, like sewing, but without the needle or thread.


In the writing I am doing now, the essay that’s become a memoir, I am studying drawings. Mostly they’re of me, at 23, and I want to understand how an artist’s eye saw me, translated me to charcoal or ink lines on paper. It’s not entirely happy work. To be honest, it’s painful at times. But yesterday I spent time looking at a drawing done later in my life, when I was the mother of three young children. I wanted to know something about the process of thinking and drawing.


How would someone even begin to look and draw and translate a transitory moment to this? Some of the earlier drawings were intrusive, in part because they were the product of an obsession. To look at them, you would think they were a record but they weren’t. I never posed for them. They were imagined or dreamed. Does that make them dishonest? I don’t know. But this one isn’t dishonest. I remember the occasion. I remember the way the artist found a scrap of paper and immediately drew. And how the paper began to deteriorate shortly after and how he made a good copy for me. A record. And it’s shifted my thinking a little, shifted my perspective again.

“On hair falling down in curls.”

Section 389 of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebook:
On hair falling down in curls:
Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.

He drew me once with my third child. He drew on rough paper that began to deteriorate almost at once. He made a copy and brought it when he came for a visit. It’s on the wall outside my study and I see it every time I come in to work at my desk. When he brought it I almost forgot the difficult weeks, the letters, the pressure, the insistent pronouncements of love. Look at my strong arms, the drapery of my clothes, the soft curl of my hair down my back. Look at my hands.

I almost forgot.

what I want

single pine

Yesterday we went into Vancouver to see an opera, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based (of course) on Shakespeare’s play. It was interesting, not quite successful, I thought, in scope and production (the sets were disappointing, I could hardly hear Oberon), though Puck was magnificent, and honestly it was lovely to be actually present, at a performance again, after years of isolation.

On the ferry to Horseshoe Bay, I had glimmers of the old feelings about travel, how that ferry trip was so often the prelude to something wonderful. In late September we drove to Edmonton, along Highway 5A enroute to Kamloops for the first night, stopping at Nicola Lake for a swim. We were the only ones on the beach and the water was cold. I was filled with joy as I swam under the enormous sky in the company of the pine you can see in the photograph. This was where we camped every summer for maybe 15 years, where I first felt the possibilities of allowing my sentences to grow into essays, the ones that wouldn’t work as lines of verse, the place where I felt the shimmer of a novel settle on my shoulders like the pollen that dusted our tent and our Coleman stove in that dry air. We’d walk the Nicola River, either before it entered Nicola Lake, or after, and it was one of the veins of water I felt in my own body, then, and later, after an experience with a blood clot that became an embolism. I wrote about it in “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, realizing as I wrote that somehow the rivers and lakes I’d loved for so long were a means of returning to my origins.

The river came down through marshlands, entering Barton Lake, then Old Dave Lake, received its tributaries (Beak Creek and Frank Ward Creek), before flowing into Douglas Lake, then out again to run and riffle its way to Nicola Lake. A river of dry beautiful grasslands and the Spaxomin Reserve with its tumble of cabins and irrigation wheels turning through the hayfields on summer days. A river that leaves Nicola Lake, is controlled by a small dam at the south end, and passes the remnants of a sawmill (on Mill Creek, another small tributary) and a grist mill, on the river itself, and then meanders through ranchlands and brushy lowlands near Merritt, a series of oxbows making measurements difficult.

(Do leg veins oxbow, do they leave their established course and meander, in reaction to a blood clot? Do the femoral canals, the adductor canals, do they break down and allow various routes to collapse into a single moving blood flow to the lungs? Femoral to popliteal, veins and arteries going in their respective directions. I run my hands up and down my legs, wondering at their own strange rivers, their riparian zones, the floods or the droughts ahead.)

I have heard yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds singing in the tule groves on the edges of the Nicola River where it leaves the lake on its way to the Thompson, taking in the Coldwater and Spius, the bodies of drowned cattle, a canoe left untethered as the river rose, and I have seen sandhill cranes flying overhead, the sound of them like creaking wagon wheels, and I’ve walked along the river’s edge at dusk, behind the Upper Nicola townsite, once when we stayed in the old Banker’s House and watched coho salmon swimming strongly towards the lake, so far from the ocean.

I have heard the blackbirds.

After the swim, we continued on to Kamloops, passing the lakes that I’ve always loved. We kept stopping because the light was so beautiful and every shore was mirrored in the surface of the water.


I made notes (of course) and maybe something will come of it but mostly I just let the landscape and the water settle back after an absence. We drove that day, and two more, until we reached Edmonton, and then we had some adventures there, exploring the Victoria Settlement and trail near Smoky Lake, before driving home again through Radium and Cranbrook and along the Hope-Princeton Highway through dense smoke.

What I want is to take the ferry again and drive to my favourite places, to Lillooet, over Pavilion Mountain, down across the Thompson River to Walhachin, up to Brookmere, to Tulameen, along the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road while bluebirds pause on the fenceposts and wildflowers crowd the shoulders of the road. I want to drive from Spences Bridge to Merritt along a highway that doesn’t really exist any longer, huge sections of it lost to the river in the floods of 2021, though once we stopped on the side of the road because big horn sheep were courting on the hill.


redux: “but the earth is still going round the sun” (George Orwell)

american pillar

Note: a year ago, Russia hadn’t yet attacked Ukraine, a sovereign country, and I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses.

It seems somehow fitting that I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, last night. I began it on February 2 (see this entry) just as some of my family were arriving for a winter visit and then I put it aside until they’d returned home to Ottawa and Victoria. Seeing it on my bedside table was a cause for quiet joy, though, because it feels like exactly the book that should have come my way at this point in public and private history. It is a book of the moment, the long moment, that considers what it is to be a person trying to find the best way to live and to write about that. For Orwell, nothing was simple. His was a passionate voice against totalitarianism, yes, and he was a firm believer in social democracy (or democratic socialism, depending….), but he also knew that politics was a complicated thing.

What I love about this book is how widely Solnit ranges in and around the strands of Orwell’s life, his thinking, his writing, and his gardens. Roses? Yes, he planted some, purchased at Woolworth’s in 1936, at the cottage he was leasing in Wallington, Hertfordshire, with his wife Eileen. They kept a kind of shop in a room off the kitchen, slicing bacon for customers, and it was from this house that Orwell departed for Spain to fight against fascism. He famously said that if anyone had asked what he was fighting for, “I should have answered: ‘Common decency’”.

Roses are the leitmotif of the book and they take Solnit to the suffrage movement (“Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.”), to Tina Modotti’s photograph, “Roses, Mexico”, to Columbia to learn something about factory rose production, and to the genetic work done by Charles Chamberlain Hurst on roses after she walked through Cambridge’s botanical gardens and noticed the sign indicating the plants were inspired by Hurst’s hybridization programme.

In a way this is a biography. We certainly learn a lot about Orwell’s life. But more importantly we learn about the interconnections of a life with the currents of history and movements. That an individual can apprehend the horrors of political systems, the damage done to humans, but can also find room for hope and optimism. For Orwell, this is evident in his essays most of all. I remember reading some of them years ago and finding a voice I was drawn to for its intelligence and its common decency, if I may borrow his own phrase. Whether planting trees for the opportunity to ameliorate harm done in your lifetime or writing in defence of English cooking (“First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets…”), he yokes beauty and attention, care and vigilance. Here he is on the common toad:

How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t…. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

This morning, listening to the news from our nation’s capital, I sort of wish for an Orwell to make sense of this moment in history—the man who could write a letter to the Manchester Guardian to stand up for Indian passengers who’d been treat badly aboard a ship, who could lament our ability to change nature for the worse (“With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains; we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara.”), and who wrote about starvation in Europe after the Second World War. That he was also the man who could daydream his way into an imaginary pub, the charmingly named Moon Under Water, with its grained woodwork and stuffed bull’s head, makes him someone I wish I could exchange plant cuttings with, share seed potatoes, and sit with over a pint on the stoop of the farmhouse on the island of Jura he went to ten years after planting those roses in Wallington, talking about gardens and freedom. It’s the beauty of this book that gives him to us with such immediacy and poignancy. Such urgency.

“my mind becomes one with all this” (Liu Tsung-Yuan)


I’ve been working on the final edits of an essay which will appear in a forthcoming anthology, Sharp Notions: Essays on the Stitching Life, due in fall from Arsenal Pulp. My contribution is about John’s bilateral hip replacement surgery in the fall of 2020 and the unexpected injury he suffered during that surgery. It’s about caring for him during a difficult period and how I worked on two quilts to keep my mind quiet. I was afraid. There were other medical issues at the time and our house in the woods felt very far from the services we needed. Because of COVID and because we were advised to consider John immunocompromised, we were not seeing other people at that time. I sewed and John healed and then I wrote about how the two processes were intimately connected, the threads overlapping and entwined. (In an older time, his incisions would have been sewn up after the surgery but now most surgeons use staples!)

Reading the essay as I worked on the rough spots, I realized it was about marriage as much as anything else. As well as anything else. When John was in UBC hospital, recovering from the surgery, we celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary. I bought pastries at a little bakery near where I was staying and took them to his room with a copy of Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan, translated by Red Pine (the pen-name of Bill Porter). We ate the pastries and read poems to each other, looking out towards the North Shore mountains.

Sewing, poetry, pastries…these have been constants of our lives together, it seems. We met at a poetry reading in 1979, we’ve worked as poets (though my writing trail veered off that course about 30 years ago), I began making quilts 35 years ago and the results are on every bed in our house, and we’ve always loved good pastries. When we stayed in Paris in 2009, in a tiny garret flat in the Marais, we went daily to a patisserie nearby and bought delicious treats to bring back to have with coffee. There were something like 94 stairs to our flat so walking up and down three or four times a day wore off the calories. We didn’t celebrate a wedding anniversary on that trip but a year or two later we were in Vienna on October 20th and we found a wonderful restaurant where we had a memorable meal. We chose the restaurant because it was a little low building and because there was a tidy stack of firewood by the door so we knew there would be a fireplace within. There was, and the food was wonderful. Tyrolean food, the owner told us, and he kept bringing little tastes of this and that, including duck and apple mousse in a tiny shell of choux pastry to taste while we were waiting for our soup and a schnapps flavoured with larch (for me) and pine (for John) to have with dessert.

Today isn’t our wedding anniversary but it’s the 44th anniversary of our meeting, which has always felt more important than the date we actually formalized our relationship. On the night we met, I was wearing a deep red dress I wish I still had. I was wearing mulberry tights. It doesn’t seem like 44 years ago. Everything feels like it was, oh, a month or so ago. A month or so ago I was waiting for our first baby to be born. A month or so ago I was sewing curtains for rooms for our children, red and blue cotton with white elephants marching from left to right. I was planting tomato seeds in little pots to arrange by the woodstove for warmth while the seeds germinated. I was writing my first essay. John was finishing a book of poems. We were listening to Dire Straits for the first time. We were walking down the driveway with one child, then two, then three, with one dog after another, until there were none. We were standing by the front door as grandchildren arrived and left. I was sitting in the rocking chair by the fire finishing a quilt. Starting another. Van Morrison was singing, I’m gonna walk down the street until I see my shining light. Our parents were getting older and older and then they were gone. Friends too. And how did this happen? We got older too.

A photograph is a story. It’s the whole story. In the one I’ve used here, we are young, there’s a baby on its way, we have slept on the land we live on now, we are learning where the best views of the mountain are, where the deer bed down for the night, where we want our house to be. We have made the first ring of stones for fire. We are drinking the water from the lake we love. Almost certainly the first dog of our shared lives was curled up at our feet.

Last night we drove out to the Backeddy Pub in Egmont for supper. The chef made elk ragu over soft potato gnocchi. We sat by the window and looked across the inlet to two frail lights on the other side. This is a life, two people at a table, the tide high, the waiter pouring a little more wine before the drive home on a narrow twisting road. I’m going to go slow, said John, because the line on the middle of the road has faded completely. A little snow fell.

Sandbars free of overnight clouds
village walls lit by the morning sun
a pristine pond encircled by trees
last night’s rain scattered by the wind
happy having nothing to do
my mind becomes one with all this
–Liu Tsung-Yuan, translated by Red Pine

redux: over in the meadow

eddy, singing

Note: a year ago, before the invasion of Ukraine, before the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, I was listening to a small boy sing.


I was drinking my coffee when I heard E. singing. He was singing to his owl, Over in the meadow, by the old mossy gate,/Lived a brown mother lizard and her lizards eight. Yesterday Aunty Angie found a salamander under some moss on the trail to Francis Point and yesterday we saw a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins plunging in the water just below us as we paused on the rocks and a newt was found on the highway, lured by warm pavement and then frozen as the sun passed. E. was singing. For the past week he sang as he drove his cars and buses over the mat by the woodstove, he sang with me as we sat on the cedar bench by the campfire waiting for it to die down to coals so we could roast marshmallows on the long forks, and after they leave this afternoon, I know I will hear phrases of song as I take the sheets from the beds, wash the linen napkins we used last night for our last “dinner party” with Great Grandma Mollie’s blue willow plates and the junk store silver. I’ll hear Over in the meadow, where the stream runs blue,/Lived an old mother fish and her little fishes two. E. loves everything, he tells me. The song, the book, the owl he loves and is taking home to Ottawa, the fire Grandad made with dry cedar, and his toast and jam. Swim, said the mother./ We swim, said the two./ So they swam and they leaped,/Where the stream runs blue.

Now our tale is done, said E. to the small brown owl, and he closed the book.

redux: the beautiful deep blue evenings of late February


Note: this was from February 15, 2020, just before the world closed down (sort of). The sky has that blue again at dusk.


Yesterday I was digging a bed in the garden, the one called Long Eye, laced under the surface with the roots of an extremely coarse grass. Where did it come from? Maybe in horse manure spread years ago. I was using the garden fork and then tracing the roots as far into the soil as I could, thinking about other things as I did so. I’ve always loved my garden. I remember using a pick to break up the rough soil about 35 years ago, one small area at a time, and then planting onions, some peas, lettuce. When the children were asleep, I’d go out in my nightdress to make sure that slugs weren’t feeding on the tiny seedlings. In those years John worked in North Vancouver and he’d be away for 3 or 4 days at a time. I didn’t know anyone here yet so my days were filled with children, simple meals, reading at bedtime because we didn’t have television, and would I have watched it anyway? Probably not. A confession: I don’t know how to turn ours on. It’s complicated. We have a satellite dish and there are several remote controls. I’d never watch on my own but some evenings there’s something special, the Ken Burns Country Music documentary being a good example. My friend Jillian Ridington asked me in the fall if I was watching it and I hadn’t realized it was on. But then the series began again this winter and we’ve tuned in most weeks. As Jillian said, there was a time when no one made distinctions about music. It was good or it wasn’t. When I listened to Hank Williams sing, it was eternal:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry…

In the garden, I remembered the days I would check the plants in my nightdress, bats flying low over the grass, and I’d listen for my children. We didn’t have baby monitors. But the windows were open. I slept to the sound of loons and owls. They did too. They were imprinted by this life, I hope, and in turn they left their own imprints. I find those impressions in surprising places. Our initials on the footings of our house, drawn in damp concrete. A faint ghost of a girl on the climbing frame or halfway up a tree down the driveway. The names they gave to landmarks. Last summer, calling the Forest Service to report smoke on the other side of Sakinaw Lake, I had to check myself when the man asked me for a specific location. I almost said, Well, directly to the SW of Grass Lake Mountain, because that’s the name Brendan and Forrest gave to the hump we see from our dining area, the hill the sun falls behind in spring, the hill Venus hangs directly above in February.

Today someone I’ve known slightly for years asked me about my children. What was Forrest doing in Ottawa, he wondered. Well, he’s a historian, I replied. He looked puzzled. He can make a living at that? His actual employment is with Library and Archives Canada, I explained, but I knew I’d lost him completely. And Brendan? That was easier. Sort of. (The man remembered he was a pretty hot point guard on the school basketball team.) He’s a university professor. He teaches math. There’s more to it but I didn’t elaborate. His daughter knows Angelica and so maybe he knows she works at a museum. (She’s a registrar.) All of these callings have their roots here, I think. Brendan explaining negative numbers to my father as they walked down the driveway before Brendan was in school made us realize that pattern and numeracy were part of his natural language if not yet his vocabulary. And Forrest (memorably) dressed as a Father of Confederation for Halloween when he was 6. We didn’t have television in those years but we had books and we visited museums. Angelica came to her present work indirectly, I think. She did a degree—well, two degrees— in Greek and Roman Studies and worked part-time at a Heritage site. That work led to training in conservation methods and that (eventually) led to her present job.

In those early years, I couldn’t have imagined where they would find themselves as adults. I wanted them to have happy lives and it seems they do. When I work outside, I listen for them still. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but I do hear them. We have a little ring of stones we make a fire within on summer evenings. On winter evenings too, if that’s when they’re here. We wave the smoke from our eyes and talk. The grandchildren roast marshmallows on the long forks we bought at the Denman Island ferry dock many years ago. I think about it all. John and I are writing a book together, a shared account of building our house, and part of what I’m doing is going through old daybooks to find out what happened and when. A daybook offers too little information about feelings and sleep deprivation and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that had to be done in a day. A week. But it tells me that we paid the guy who made our driveway on a particular day and that the lumber yard was sending a truck with a sling of north species 2x4s on another day. And that the well-drillers were coming up during a week in the winter of 1982.

There was a memo-to-self to buy a bank draft to pay for William Morris honeysuckle cotton for bedroom curtains in 1983. An acceptance to an MFA program for me, something I started but never finished because by my second year I had two children under 3 and had no time to travel into Vancouver for seminars. No time to write. Sometimes I despaired about that but deep down I knew that one day I would have time and I would make the most of it. In the years when John worked in North Vancouver and I was here with my little boys (because by the time Angelica was born, he was able to move most of his teaching to Sechelt), I remember the darkness of winter and then the beautiful deep blue evenings of late February, the ones we’re approaching now, the same scribble of jet trails across the western sky like a message just for me.

the dark ages


It was 2015 when we visited the Almendres site in Portugal. This arrangement of stones, constructed between 5000 and 4000 BCE, has astronomic significance and is in alignment with other Neolithic sites in the area. We went on a warm day in March, in the company of an archaeologist, and I remember vividly the scent of the cork oaks, olives, the wildflowers on the path from the parking area. It was a page from an ancient story, full of light and beauty.

These days it feels like we’ve entered a dark age. This morning the death count from the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria: approaching 20,000. 351 days since Russia invaded Ukraine and continues to reduce towns with their hospitals, schools, housing, and the infrastructures supporting these to rubble. In Pakistan, months after catastrophic flooding, huge areas still remain underwater. Closer to home, coal mining in the Elk Valley have been polluting fish habitat with selenium, the government is still committed to the use of glyphosates, and former residents of the town of Lytton, burned to ashes in 2021 try to recoup damages.

Some days it’s hard to be hopeful. For years I’ve begun many mornings with a swim, a wonderfully meditative way to think myself into the day ahead. From late September to early May this swim takes place in a local pool. What I appreciated in the past 7 years was how welcoming the facility was, how even during the first year of the pandemic, it was possible to swim, with strict protocols about numbers and so on observed. We booked 45 minute swims and there was a window of time to use the change room and showers safely before the next group arrived. I thought through parts of my book Blue Portugal & Other Essays in the pool, mostly doing the backstroke, finding ways to organize sections, approach new material, and if there’s a watery rhythm to the sentences, that’s why. Lately, though, things have changed. You realize how the healthy ecology of a morning swim has a lot to do with who else is using the pool, and how. We’ve always gone early and there’s a regular small group who have their favourite lanes, their own style of swimming. But as I noted, that’s changed. A few newer swimmers who are wildly performative, who thrash and splash, and one of whom has actually complained about me to the lifeguards for not showering before I enter the pool. I’ve been using the pool for more than 40 years and I’ve never not showered. I don’t think the lifeguards believed him but of course it stung. The other day we went for our swim and I realized as I came out from the showers that John and I would be expected yet again to share a lane. It’s a 4 lane pool and with us, there would be 5 swimmers for that early period. Two of them were the thrashers and they were already in. The lifeguards were hastily putting ropes (which aren’t ropes at all but big plastic dividers strung from end to end) between the lanes because they knew there would be turbulence. That meant that people couldn’t simply move over a bit and use, say, 2/3 of a lane. Instead of swimming, I had a brief sauna and then put my clothes on and went to wait for John in the lobby. (He suggested we each swim half of our usual regime, taking turns, but I was filled with something I realize now was rage. I didn’t want any part of it.) A lifeguard came out to talk to me. When I explained that it was too hard to share a lane that had the dividers in place and that it was better to keep the pool open so that people could nudge over a bit so that we were using a little less space, and that after all, John and I were always expected to share and no one asked the other swimmers to share, she said she didn’t know what else to do. (She’s a nice woman and I know she’s not to blame.) She said I could find another time to come maybe? We tried this last week but the time she’d suggested turned out to be just as busy. I realized that the courtesy and kindness I’d associated with the local pool was a thing of the past. The alpha males had taken over the quiet early swim and I was out of luck, edged out of the pool by their aggression and splashing.

I’ve spent the past 4 months writing the first draft of a book. It’s happened that way because I went 3 or 4 mornings a week to the pool and thought my way into the next section. I thought my way around the difficult issues presented by the narrative, the memories I needed to parse for meaning, the various ethical considerations at play when you write about others, even if you are primarily writing about your own experiences influenced or shaped by them, and this morning, saying goodbye to John as he took his rolled towel out to the car, I felt — feel — bereft. Something is lost. Has gone dark.

During the awful first year of the pandemic, after John’s surgery that went sideways and resulted in a permanent injury, I had weekly plunges in the lake nearby. I loved the feeling of every cell waking up as I submerged my body in the cold water. But it wasn’t swimming. Now I’m wondering if it’s time to buy a wetsuit and make that my daily swim, year round.

This morning I’m remembering those stones in the dry grass near Evora, remnants of a culture that knew phases of the moon, solar positions, and star alignments. We walked from stone to stone, some of them incised with symbols both anthropomorphic and celestial. It was quiet, a few birds, the young archaeologist showing us the patterns, the distant view of a single menhir that aligns with the Almendres stones at the point of the winter solstice. It felt like a high point in human understanding of their universe. This morning I am wishing for something like that to remind me of what’s possible again.