Today is one of those crisp winter days with just enough light in it to remind us that we are on the ascent to spring. In Victoria earlier in the week to celebrate my birthday, the snowdrops were blooming. I saw a raven carrying sticks across the highway as we drove north to take the ferry home. I bought two pots of miniature daffodils, one for Angelica and one to take home for the worktable where it sits, full of buds and promise.
While in Victoria, we went to see Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s marvelous retelling of that iconic story of young women, women’s work, and the endless variations of love and responsibility. It was a joy to watch. Like the textiles that filled almost every frame of the film, the story unfolded its rich and beautiful layers. Partly it did this by the way Gerwig deconstructed the narrative and repieced it so that it was not linear but associative. The film anticipates and remembers, sometimes almost simultaneously, the young women on the screen both foreshadowing and echoing who they were and who they become. Each frame was painterly, warm, bathed in the most generous light. And the ending was a delight, watching the book that Jo made of the sisters’ lives come to actual life, before our eyes, and hers.
I’ve spent most of the week in my bed, unable to do much because of a heavy cold and cough. And fever. But now it seems to be lifting and I can hear again. Rain on the roof, the tiny beeps of the chickadees when I take them their seeds. While I was in my bed this week, I was planning—in that surreal way you plan when you are too sick to do anything else—a chapbook. I am about to turn 65, which seems significant, if only for the reason that I will be officially an old-age pensioner, and I thought I’d like to make a small token to acknowledge that turning. John often prints a broadside for his significant birthdays but he’s a poet and almost always has something just right for the occasion. A short poem, a section from a longer poem. Well, I have an essay. John has offered to print a cover page and colophon and a label for the cover. I’ll create the text block on my computer and print it on my laser printer. In Ottawa last week, my son Forrest found an image of a beautiful old map of Bukovyna and resized it for me to use for endpapers. I’ll stitch the books by hand. In the fog of my fever, I could see the finished chapbooks and they were lovely. The essay is organized as a series of “exhibits” of some Ukrainian villages I visited in September. It feels like the right thing to print in honour of my birthday, to record the names, the contours of a land that my grandfather left and never returned to, but that lingers on in my name, the foods I ate as a child, the tattered photographs and stories that are all I have of that legacy.
Sometimes I think these things will never be known and sometimes they appear to hover just beyond my consciousness, enticing me to work harder, dig deeper. (In this exhibit, the map will be faded, with blank areas. A hatchwork of trees, a long blue river.)
It’s the last day of the year. It’s raining. John and I are both sick and won’t be driving to Oyster Bay to share a feast with our friends, one that will extend into the small hours so that the New Year will be be properly greeted with sparklers and champagne. Instead, we’ll be long asleep by midnight. People are making lists of what they’ve read over the past year, or what they’ve published, or, or, or. I don’t separate things. Reading, writing, sewing, cooking, gardening, time with my family and friends, swimming my slow kilometer and a third, listening to Bach or Emmylou Harris, taking the Canada Line out to the airport on the first leg of a journey, waiting for the first salmonberry blossoms, feeding the Steller’s jay in the morning, correcting proofs, taking a bottle of Prosecco to the beach for happy hour with my daughter on a trip to the Pacific Rim, trying to scrub the stains out of tablecloths, picking tomatoes: it all seems part of a scrappy patchwork that is my life. I’m grateful for all of it, even the uneven stitches, the courses of squares that won’t align properly, the stars that often need to be picked out and begun again (measure twice, cut once), and when I look back, squinting a little to focus on the smallest scrap, I’m pretty happy with the year, though it had its share of challenges, losses, frustrations, and sadness.
Last night we arrived home from a few days in Ottawa, celebrating Christmas with our family there. I made stone soup with one little boy, read “The Wheels on the Bus” many times to the other. We ate large meals, we walked (slowly, because of Grandad’s hips) to the park, and we slept in a room completely filled with books. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…) This morning I reviewed copy-edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out in spring from Palimpsest Press. When I began to write this novella, the two small boys didn’t yet exist. Yet as I looked at the text this morning, I imagined them into the landscape their dad loved so well. One day we will go there with them and show them everything we love about the dry country in the interior of B.C.
Reading again of the main character Izzy as she searches for the places at the heart of The Double Hook, Swamp Angel, and Hetty Dorval, and as she tries to understand the final days of her brother’s life before he drowned in the Thompson River, I felt myself to be there, in autumn, among the sumac and dried rabbitbrush, the air pungent with sage, weathered wood and lyrical pines at every turn in the road. Writing a book is one thing. Editing it is another. This stage of fine-tuning the language is a gift on the last days of the old year.
This morning, offered the option of reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas in Latin or English, John chose English. And how the years collapse, telescoped into the long continuum of Christmases past, decades of them, and I listen for the old familiar rhymes. Later, the little boys and I will make stone soup, using a beautiful green stone from Trail Bay beach, our coast to Vanier.
It’s dark and cold here on the edge of the Pacific coast, the light almost completely gone, though after today, we can expect it to return again, slowly, slowly. Our house is warmed by a wood fire and there’s an extra quilt on the bed for the long night. This afternoon, I noticed the little moments of colour—hips from the dog rose around my second storey window, the first tiny blooms of winter jasmine. When I went to feed the birds this morning, the chickadees were so eager (and hungry!) that one paused on my wrist as I tipped seed into their feeder. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia this time of year, from December 17 – 23, feasting, singing, lighting fires, and gifting each other with candles to signify the return of the light. Are we any different?
We laugh to think the Romans lit great fires in December
to persuade the sun to come back. To persuade the sun!
— Elizabeth Arnold
A late note, an hour after the Solstice: John called upstairs to say there was a small bird, a golden-crowned kinglet, fluttering at the window. Was it trying to get in the house? Was it confused? Who could say. I was reading upstairs and then I turned out my light. About ten minutes later, I heard fluttering at the curtained window by my bed. Looking out, I was eye to eye with the kinglet. Small bright eyes, black lines on either side of its splendid golden crown. Was it the spirit of one we’ve loved and lost, asking us to remember? A tiny life in the dark night, a tiny king in a wild country, on the darkest night of the year.
Note: 5 years ago, and I’m still thinking about novellas (I was up in the night, working on The Occasions, my novella-in-progress); I still keep Swamp Angel on my desk. (A year ago I had the pleasure of talking to Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition about Ethel Wilson’s book.)
I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:
The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…
Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!