posts

the eye’s geography

circles

In 2018, I fell on ice in Edmonton and unknowingly the process of retinal detachment began as a result of the impact of that fall. I was lucky. Edmonton has a very good Eye Institute at the Royal Alexandra and when I realized that the shimmering I was seeing at the edge of my vision wasn’t just the result of being with my family and feeling really happy (though sore, as a result of the fall, which also cracked my coccyx), I was examined by an ophthalmology resident who happened to be working after hours on a Sunday evening and who realized something very serious was happening with my right eye. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about the experience and its aftermath, because I had emergency laser surgery to repair a tear in my retina once we returned home the next day and then another surgery about 6 weeks later after a second tear was discovered in my left eye. It was a stressful period as I went back and forth to the ophthalmologist and he used special equipment to examine the inner tissues of my eyes. It was also profoundly interesting. In Edmonton and in Sechelt, I saw images of my inner eye that were so beautiful I cried.

What I remember about her examinations: there was a moment when she was shining a bright light into the back of my eye and I saw a red desert landscape with long fissures transcribing it. I think this might have been what’s called a Purkinje tree, the view of my own retinal blood vessels interpreted by my brain using a correlative image from its stored hoard. Which is why what I saw resembled a National Geographic photograph of a dry and cracked desert surface. I saw ochre earth and deep crevasses.

Yesterday I had my annual visit to my ophthalmologist. I had the usual vision test with the stinging drops and then a series of photographs, called optical coherence tomography, taken of my inner eyes. When I met with the ophthalmologist after a technician had done the test with light waves, he had the images on his computer. In a way it was like seeing the surface of Mars.

surface of mars

The colours were similar, though my eyes had some areas that appeared olive green, like distant marshes. Each eye had the scar from the laser surgery and those reminded me of buttons. After the surgeries, I made a quilt to try to puzzle through what had happened to me and what it meant. The opening essay in Blue Portugal is about that. I called the quilt (and the essay) “A Dark Path” and in a later essay, “Anatomy of a Button”,  I also explore the process of coming to terms with the experience:

Now what? I’d come through the experience with my sight intact but with scars at the backs of my eyes from the laser procedures. Quite often I’d lay my hands gently over my eyes and imagine a life without sight. There are worse things, I know, but I thought of everything I loved to look at—tulips, birds in flight, favourite landscapes, the sky (particularly the late February sky at 6:30 p.m. on a fine day when it’s the blue of Maxfield Parrish paintings, sometimes with Venus and a new moon hanging silver above the Douglas firs), the faces of those I love (an increasing number of people because of grandchildren), prairie fields from a great height, flying from the coast to Ottawa and back, freshly washed sheets fluttering on the clothesline in wind, the chartreuse flowers on bigleaf maples, and so many more things—and I’d realize how grateful I was that I wasn’t blind. Sometimes I’d hold my hands over my eyes for a bit longer because I was crying.

This time, looking at the ethereal geography of my eyes, I saw other relationships: the pinky-ochre of freshly sawn wood,

oak

the rich orbs of coho salmon eggs in the gravel of the creek near us after the fall spawning has taken place,

slc_eggs

and I was comforted. Or at least I was until the ophthalmologist  told me that I had a situation. Remember, he said, I showed you this last year? The macula tissue on the right eye has a pucker. (I did remember but I sort of put it out of my mind.) Here’s what we were seeing last year and here’s what I’m seeing today. And today it’s a little worse. We’ll keep an eye on it (of course). He told me what to be alert to changing vision because the condition can lead to vision loss and even holes in the macula. When he mentioned one of the things to take seriously if it happens, I wondered if that was what I’d experienced last Saturday, when the vision in my right eye went wonky for about 15 minutes. He thought not. He said if it happened and regular vision didn’t return, then I was to see him immediately. I quietly noted this.

Our eyes are such magnificent organs. And we take them for granted, or at least I do. Oh sure, I sometimes grumble when I’m downstairs, about to thread a needle, and I remember my reading glasses are on my bedside table. I remember the decades when I didn’t need glasses to thread a needle or to read or to do any kind of close work. But now? I am perhaps too alert to my eyes. Is that a thickening I feel in the right eye? A heaviness? When I was swimming my slow kilometer this morning, I was thinking of windows, mirrors, the surface of Mars. I was thinking of how we contain the most extraordinary landscapes right in our very bodies and mostly we will never know them. And now? And now?

When I take up the quilt, I hear the silk rustling. It is almost alive under its top of patches and panels. Rustling like bird wings, something I could hear with my eyes closed. If I close my eyes, I hear the silk, the sound of rain on the roof, the restless movement of the cat investigating the boxes behind my desk. I push my thread through the holes in the shell buttons, two eyes side by side, tender stabs with a sharp needle. For a moment a tiny button hangs on the thread as I fiddle with a tangled bit, trying to ease it out. By a thread. We hang by a thread in this world of wonders and terror. On a path of indigo cotton, black silk streaked with gold, squares of grey flannel, linen the colour of midnight, these silvery buttons will make a small light for anyone walking in uncertainty, in hope, scarred or whole, the whole dark length.

 

late

blue anemone

When I woke at 6:30, there was a robin singing in the wisteria over the patio beam. For years a pair nested on the beam, under the eaves by the porch door, but then the weasel discovered them and stole the eggs due to hatch. And now we have Winter, a cat who likes to crouch on the beam, surveying the known world. This morning the robin was singing the long salmonberry song, beautiful passages ringing out into the morning, and what was that, a tapping by the cucumber boxes? A pileated woodpecker excavating the stump of the old cedar, the one we had taken down more than a decade ago, the one with the pumpkin seed tucked into its inner core. I stood under the wisteria, blooming late this year, and it was every spring morning, birdsong and flowers and the paving stones cool under my bare feet. And now, looking out my study window, I see a doe browsing the long grass.

late wisteria

After a period away from my novel-in-progress, I’ve returned to it with a kind of strange and fierce excitement. There were things I needed to find out about, marine engines among them, and a morning in a shed filled with them, guided by a fisherman friend who’d grown up with Easthopes and Vivians, was a wonderful inspiration. There were water pumps, gears, huge hooks, a small bell from a trolling line. The scent of old paint and diesel, in a shed on the edge of the ocean, was a palimpsest, in a way. Remember this, I kept saying to myself, remember the rust, the cold metal, the flaking green paint.

morning deer

I went out on the deck and the deer stepped towards me. She is there still, looking at the house as though she expects the doors to open, music to drift out. In the night Winter woke me with the gift of a shrew and I took it outside, standing for a few moments in the dark to listen to whatever it was rustling in the woods right about where the deer is standing. It could have been a coyote or a bear, something making its nightly rounds. There were stars, a very bright planet that I think must have been Venus, and the astonishing quiet of the night, apart from the rustling that moved farther away.

This morning I’ll spend a few hours in the pages of my novel, where the old engines stand on their worn benches, and big wrenches hang on bent nails on a post. After a period away, I want to be there again, in Easthope, rain on the Doriston Highway, the scent of woodsmoke. In the night the rustling might have been an owl, a coyote, a bear. There was something I knew as I held my hands up to frame the little cluster of stars, something I need to find out.

Night is a cistern. Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads   
with the loud rustling of endless grief.   
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.   
And who will you become, who will you be   
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.
 
Night is a cistern. The last pairs dance at a country ball.   
High waves cry from the sea, the wind rocks pines.   
An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.   
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.   
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.
                       –Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

100 days of war

at bukovets

It was at Bukovets—a mountain village in the Carpathians—where I received the phone call that distant relatives had learned of my visit to my grandfather’s village a few days earlier and were driving to my hotel to meet me later that day. In Bukovets, there was a celebration, a huge meal, dancing, and then the school teacher, who spoke English, told us, You are Ukrainian. This is your country, your land. Come again, bring your children, your grandchildren. Although I was in Ukraine and although I had a Ukrainian grandfather, I didn’t—couldn’t—think of myself as Ukrainian. Could I? My daughter? My husband, born in Yorkshire? A man pounded the table and said, You are married to a Ukrainian woman so you are Ukrainian! He toasted us with the fiery horilka flavoured with mountain ginseng.

I’ve thought of that afternoon in sunlight, at a table high on a mountain slope, so often in the past 100 days. The beautiful music, food enough to feed an entire village, glasses replenished over and over again. I loved the cornmeal banosh, made with salo, salty cheese, and sour cream. Loved the cucumber salad with handsful of ferny dill strewn over the slices, the varenyky filled with cherries, sprinkled with sugar, and served with more of that rich sour cream. Women kept streaming out of a summer kitchen with platters and bowls, refilling our plates, pushing away our hands because why would anyone refused another helping of this food? Eat, eat! These are your people!

Today in the Guardian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy says that Russian forces are occupying about 20% of Ukraine’s territory. Children are being removed to Russia. New sanctions are announced and new weapons packages are being offered. Breaches of international law are discussed as though anyone at this point has the will or the ability to enforce these.

Here on the very edge of the Pacific, with a blue sky and birdsong, I am again wondering what to do. The bowl of dill in my greenhouse is green and ferny and tonight I’ll snip it over buttered noodles, try my hand at banosh. Looking out at the morning, I am reading poetry, which Auden told us makes nothing happen but survives in the valley of its making. I am thinking of the green valley below Bukovets, sheep with their long fleeces carrying wildflower seeds from one field to another.

Every hut in our beloved country is on the edge.
And to be honest, I’m on the edge, too.
I feel sorry for the ones at the center, but really I’m especially sorry for the ones in the camp towers, watching the frosty distance.
           —Boris Khersonsky, trans. by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk

we move through time

la casita

Last night I was looking through photo files on John’s computer. I was looking for something specific, which I didn’t find. But in a group of photos taken in the summer of 2007, 15 years ago, I was taken back to that time. I remember that Brendan came from Toronto where he was working on his PhD and we went with him to Powell River to collect his sister and brother from the Comox ferry. They’d been in Victoria and I believe they’d gone up to Comox by train to have lunch with their Aunty Jennie and Uncle Jack. After we collected them from the ferry, we had supper at the wonderful Mexican restaurant La Casita, which doesn’t exist in that particular incarnation any longer.

la casita 2

We came home on the Earls Cove ferry at twilight, the vessel moving in the dark water and little lights from remote homesteads piercing the evening. We were glad to be together as a family again and I know there would have been laughter.

Angelica had just finished her first degree, a double major in Greek and Roman Studies and Medieval Studies, and her brothers were at work on PhDs, in History and Mathematics. Brendan’s partner Cristen—this was before the weddings in 2012, before Forrest had met Manon—was up on Ellesmere Island where she was doing research for her PhD in atmospheric physics. I loved hearing about their work, the areas they were studying, so far from home. So far! And far from what John and I have spent our lives doing—poetry, essays, novels…

two guys

We all look so much younger in these photographs. Well, we were, weren’t we? I was 52. John would turn 60 later that year. There were books unwritten, jobs for the children undreamed of, marriages, houses, babies, travel. There were deaths in our futures—our parents, too many friends. When I showed John one of the photos this morning, he said, in a kind of wonder, “There’s Cloudy!” She was the cat we gave to Angie for her birthday, maybe her 10th?, and that cat had more lives than any I’ve known.

3High Ground Girls

I know there are many theories of time. The two that interest me the most are the Newtonian view, that time is dependent upon sequence and events, and another, perhaps more specific to Kant, who said, “Time is nothing else than the form of the internal sense, that is, of the intuitions of self of our internal state.” I think he means an intellectual structure that we use in ways to sequence our own lives but is not measurable or quantifiable. That summer of 2007, we were caught in a meander, the current winding and turning back on itself, not measurable as the crow flies, but singular. In another version of the story, the river erodes the banks, turns, finds another route. In river systems, old meanders are sometimes abandoned and become lakes. That summer is a lake in my memory, forgotten by the river’s flow.

This morning I heard a Swainson’s thrush. I was both grateful and sad. Yesterday a thrush hit the living room window, hard, and I raced out to see if I could help it. It was lying on its back, its beak opening and closing, its tongue surprisingly red, and its feet moving quite strongly. I picked it up in a tea towel and cradled it. The eyes, so bright, the beak opening, closing, until its feet stopped moving and the eyes dimmed, then closed too. So many summers I’ve listened to the Swainson’s thrushes sing the morning into being. Mornings when my children were young, when they were gone, or back, when I hoped they were also lying in their beds downstairs, listening. In my new book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, there’s an essay I wrote about these summers. “Love Song” opens with the song of the Swainson’s thrush and concludes with a few lines of “You Can’t Hurry Love”. It’s a day that is all the summer days (including the ones of 2007). A sun dial reminds us the passing of time and the garden reminds us of the accumulation of time, and although I wasn’t aware I was bowing to both Newton and Kant, I think I was.

The light is our clock. We talk quietly in bed, listening to the birds. In the night there were loons and we’re glad they’ve chosen the bay below us for nesting. One of us remembers a summer when the house was filled with children. Another remembers waking in the tent to face a day of house-building, framing and lifting walls, running out of nails, measuring and measuring again the bird’s mouth notches so that the rafters would rest snugly on the wall plates. One baby slept in a basket on the sleeping bag in the blue tent. (The others were still unborn, waiting to be dreamed into being.) One baby slept in a crib in the new wing of the house, in a room next to the one with bunk beds, while I walked in the garden in a cotton nightdress, coaxing the peas to attach themselves to wire. Three children didn’t sleep as the sun set later and later, long past bedtime, and we made campfires in rings of stones, sat on a cedar plank while the smoke rose to the stars. In the garden, the sundial (Grow Old With Me, The Best is Yet to Come) was smothered by lemon balm.

We move through time. We are in it, we see it in the soft lights of the houses on Nelson Island as the ferry passes at twilight, the remnants of old river beds, the rings of the cedar logs waiting beyond the house for milling. I see it in the faces of these beautiful people who are my family and in my own face, 15 years ago, when I didn’t know what was ahead but was eager all the same.

Where did the past go?

piano rolls

Lately I’ve been wishing I had certain people to talk to again. There are conversations I miss. The writer Edith Iglauer was one of the first people I got to know when we first moved to the Coast. We had a small writing group. Edith, Howard White, Bryan Carson, Frank White, John, and me. I remember the first gathering we had, at our house (because I had 2 children then, soon to be 3, and there were no local babysitters), and how Edith brought the opening passage of what became her book, Fishing With John. Mr. Shawn wanted her to work on the first two sentences a bit. She wanted it to be perfect, though in truth I’d almost never heard a better piece of writing:

Each year, from spring through fall, a number of small vessels with tall poles stretched out on either side appear, like large birds, on the coastal waters of British Columbia. They seem to sit motionless on the surface, but they are moving gently at a speed of around two knots. They are trollers–with a lacework of lines and hooks hanging into the sea from their poles–searching for salmon.

In those years I was writing almost nothing because I had the children and John taught most of his classes in North Vancouver. There wasn’t time to sit at my desk and think. But I hoped I’d return to writing and Edith was so encouraging. She offered me the corner of the machine shed she’d turned into a writing space when her late husband John Daly was alive. He’d be on his side and she’d be near him but doing her own work. I was grateful for the offer though in truth it wasn’t space I needed but time. And eventually I had that. I have it still and never lose the sense that I am lucky.

For some reason I’ve wanted to talk to Edith lately. To sit with her as I did in the nook that was her dining area, looking out into Garden Bay, or at my table, with some papers spread out, her current work or mine, and to talk about writing. Which usually turned fairly quickly to talk of food, local issues (we were both involved with a ratepayers’ group, taking on one thing after another), children, and a hundred other things. But if I needed advice, she was very happy to offer it.

Last week I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs to find a book to read. I took The Strangers Next Door from the shelf in my study and went back to bed, turning on my small reading lamp, and there was Edith’s voice again. She was talking about Pierre Trudeau, whom she’d profiled for the New Yorker, and she was up in the North, attending a meeting with Don Snowden, who was kind of a hero to her, and she was on the Bella Coola hill with Tom Gee,

…his elbows on the wheel, steering with them while he lit a cigarette. It was a horrifying sight. “You’d be surprised at the number of people who come in and don’t drive out again,” he said casually. “They put their cars on a barge instead and fly home. The road was just a goat trail when I came over it in 1956, and pretty tough here in the beginning; not the way it is now, with lots of turnbacks and turnarounds. Hello there!” he exclaimed, as a boulder hit the truck and rolled over the embankment.

I remember having tea with her after John and I had driven to Bella Coola and back with our children and we laughed about the hill. She’d gone to Bella Coola with John Daly by boat with the idea of relocating but after her one trip up the hill, she told John, “If you move to Bella Coola, I’ll come and visit you. Maybe.” (My thoughts exactly.) A lovely place but the road and the grizzlies were just enough to make me feel out of my comfort zone. Her too.

Over two nights, I read The Strangers Next Door and when I’d finished, I missed her more than ever. I missed her enthusiasm, her single-minded focus when something interested or troubled her (politics for example), her generosity. Her profiles of Bill Reid, Hubert Evans, Arthur Erickson, and Trudeau the Elder: I wonder if they felt she was giving them as much as they were giving her? When my son Brendan was finishing his first degree (in mathematics and physics), the university he was attending recommended him for a Rhodes Scholarship. He had to put together an application package and he needed character references. He asked Edith, whom he’d known all his life, if she’d write one for him. She was excited and invited him to her house where she interviewed him and then wrote a profile, not unlike the ones in this book. I remember she faxed it to me to see if I thought it was ok and it was just so amazing. She described him at one point leaning forward, his elbow on his knee, as he explained an idea to her, and now I am hoping he saved a copy of it. My point in that she gave the same attention and courtesy to her subjects whether they were Canada’s Prime Minister or a young man from her community whom she’d known since he was an infant and who’d played hide and seek in her basement at the Halloween party she gave every year. I missed her but I also felt we’d been talking. Her work is lively with her voice, her curiosity, her care.

springboard

This morning John and I went with a friend to see his late uncle’s collection of boat engines, water pumps, a springboard from an early logging operation (my friend’s grandparents settled in this area in the early part of the 20th century), and every possible (and impossible) artefact imaginable. They are all on shelves, the floors, and any other surface in a building called Bert M’s Museum. What are these, I asked, pointing at boxes stacked on end in a larger box. Oh, those are player piano rolls, he replied. He showed me the Easthopes I ‘d come to see–they figure in a novel I’m writing– and showed us the huge Garry oaks his uncle had planted decades ago (which delighted me as I hadn’t known my favourite tree was growing so near to me, other than the small seedlings I started with acorns from Vancouver Island), and the little house by the water that had been his grandparents’, then his uncle’s, and I felt a little the way I felt when I closed Edith’s book. Where does the past go? It doesn’t go away, exactly. Some of it is in books, Edith’s for certain, and some of it is in Bert M’s Museum.  Over on Oyster Bay, a friend is still growing Bert’s beans, his engines will have pride of place in my novel, and I know that Edith’s spirit is alive and curious enough to make me want to get the details right.

engine

heartsease

heartsease

1.
A single tiny plant I step over, going from the back door to the greenhouse. A single tiny heartsease growing from a pocket of rough soil on the rock face. “now purple with love’s wound”, a love charm, the lines of its face a way to read one’s fortune.

2.
This morning I would read its face for solace as children are buried in Texas, as Russian shells flatten Maryinka, Mykilske, Poltavka and Orikhiv.

3.
Wild Pansy. Love-Lies-Bleeding. Love-in-Idleness. Live-in-Idleness. Loving Idol. Love Idol. Cull Me. Cuddle Me. Call-me-to-you. Jack=jump-up-and-kiss-me. Meet-me-in-the-Entry. Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery. Three-Faces-under-a-Hood.

4.
“There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.” My thoughts are dark with bloodshed, horror, a silenced classroom.

5.
And yet. Yet.

6.
Kit-run-in-the-Fields. Pink-o’-the-Eye. Kit-run-about. Godfathers and Godmothers. Stepmother. Herb Trinitatis. Herb Constancy. Pink-eyed-John. Bouncing Bet. Flower o’luce. Bird’s Eye. Bullweed.
Banwort, Banewort. Pensée.

7.
“The fairest flower that ever bloomed,
Or garden ever blest,
Looks cold to care, and ne’er was doomed
To ease the heart’s unrest.”

8.
“Stony Heartsease is a base and low plant: the leaves are rounder, and not so much cut about the edges as the others: the branches are weak and feeble, trailing upon the ground: the flowers are likewise of three colours, that is to say, white, blue, and yellow, void of smell. The root perisheth when it hath perfected his seed.”

9.
Houses turned to rubble in Maryinka, Mykilske, Poltavka and Orikhiv , graves in fields of spring grass, children who will never slam the door on their return from school, eager for summer, backpacks dropped on the floor, faces alight with Texas sun.

10.
“THERE is a flower I wish to wear,
But not until first worn by you—
Heartsease—of all earth’s flowers most rare;
Bring it; and bring enough for two.”

11.
And yet it blooms this morning in rocky soil.

(Passages from Shakespeare, Mrs. Grieve, John Clare, Walter Savage Landor.)

I walked out

crab

A cool morning, after the gift of 3 beautiful ones in a row. I walked out to stand under the crabapple tree, the one given us at least 38 years ago by John’s mum as a sucker cut from the base of her own tree, ours filled now with blossoms and bees. Standing under it is to be immersed in bee sound. (Standing under it in fall is to be in the presence of bears. Another story.)

A cold winter has resulted in spectacular lilacs. The purple ones all came from my parents’ house in Royal Oak, the one with the paddock for my horse behind, the little shoots poking up around the base of the tree they kept pruned within an inch of its life. Is it still there? I don’t know. But we have at least ten offspring here and yesterday I noticed a bunch of suckers at the base of the big one by the compost boxes. I’ll dig them up and plant them somewhere else.

I’ve been saying everything is a month late this year and yes, many things are, but when I looked back to see when I put the pots of tomatoes on the upper deck last year, I found this entry: https://theresakishkan.com/2021/05/23/le-matin/  And here are the pots I took up over the past few days (there are more around the corner and many more in the greenhouse still):

a month late

No roses yet, though they’re in bud. The wisteria is definitely behind its usual flowering time but the light feathery leaves are unfolding and the buds are filling out.

This year I thought I’d grow some orach. I seeded some in pots in the greenhouse and a few spindly threads germinated and then sort of disappeared. I was disappointed–last year, with the heat dome in June, many of the greens bolted early, so this year I’ve been adding plants that tolerate heat: New Zealand spinach, sturdier lettuces, and (I thought) orach, of which my old friend Pliny the Elder has this to say:

They say, too, that there are two species of it, the wild and the cultivated, and that, mixed with bread, they are good, both of them, for dysentery, even if uiceration should have supervened, and are useful for stomachic affections, in combination with vinegar. They state, also, that this plant is applied raw to ulcers of long standing, and that it modifies the inflammation of recent wounds, and the pain attendant upon sprains of the feet and affections of the bladder. The wild halimon, they tell us, has thinner leaves than the other, but is more effectual as a medicament in all the above cases, as also for the cure of itch, whether in man or beast. The root, too, according to them, employed as a friction, renders the skin more clear, and the teeth whiter; and they assert that if the seed of it is put beneath the tongue, no thirst will be experienced. They state, also, that this kind is eaten as well as the other, and that they are, both of them, preserved.

Given that recommendation, how could I not plant orach? So those threads, not much growth, but then this morning as I moved some flats of beans around on the shelves in the greenhouse, I kept seeing orach seedlings growing among them. Also in the little pots of cucumber plants and even in some of the tomatoes I haven’t yet planted in their big pots. There was a mouse in the greenhouse about 3 weeks ago, or 2 mice, because we had to put out traps and that was the bounty. Maybe in their foraging in the newly-sprouted beans, they somehow distributed orach seeds from their pot to the flats of beans. Anyway, I was so happy to see the little seedlings because given Pliny’s list of cures effected by orach, who wouldn’t grow it?

I walked around, thinking how lovely the sound of robins in the woods, the low and high pitched bee music in the crabapple tree, and how my parents’ lilacs remind me every year of them, Walt Whitman’s lines, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,/And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night”, the good and the bad, how I’d return late on a spring night to stand for a few minutes in the driveway of their house, the one I couldn’t wait to leave, the scent of lilacs in the darkness almost too much to bear.

lilacs

instead of Greece

instead of greece

This morning I’ve been thinking about Greece, a place I will probably never travel to again, and I am remembering how I took for granted the long warm days, swimming in a warm ocean, eating ripe tomatoes and cucumbers and salty cheese with glasses of golden retsina at lunch, and lying down in fragrant grass with Agamemnon. I’ve written about this in my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and mostly it’s very much in the past, but this morning, a very welcome sun and 3 new leaves on a small fig tree, a rosemary in a Krinos olive oil tin,  have reminded me of that time.

crete

As the weekend approaches, I am content, mostly, to be moving tomato plants up to their summer home on the second-storey deck. I say “mostly” because we were anticipating a flight to Ottawa to see our family there, to walk at Mere Bleu, maybe swim in the quarry pond near their home, and spend time with them on the deck we helped them to build 7 or 8 years ago. I had tiny tomatillo seedlings to wrap in damp paper to deliver to them and some beeswax for a project with older grandson. But a phone call reporting household-wide COVID had us cancel our flight.

Content, mostly, to wash the oldest quilts and hang them to dry, to plant out chard seedlings, to think about my morning swim and how the front crawl isn’t nearly as difficult as it was last week, and to keep an eye out for western tanagers which should be arriving soon. This was the week when my Blue Portugal and Other Essays was officially published (though I’ve had copies for about 10 days) and it was welcomed in the most generous way, here, and here, and here. (And an earlier book, The Weight of the Heart, was reviewed here by a dream reviewer, someone who knows the writers it pays homage to and the landscapes it celebrates.) Friends write to tell me they’re reading it and I realize how that was always my hope. To know that the essays have found readers and what I’ve recorded over the years it took to write Blue Portugal hasn’t been lost.

Instead of Ottawa, instead of Greece, I am here, right here, in a red chair with a cup of strong coffee, a greenhouse full of seedlings that need to be potted into big tubs or else given away (and if you need tomatoes, let me know), an olive tree about to bloom, actual warmth in the sun after weeks of chilly rain, and a book about decoding the Rosetta stone that reads like a mystery novel. And after that, I’m going to re-read Lawrence Durrell who will take me to Greece, or at least the Greece I am longing for: before computers, before the 21st century, when I was still young, and the anemones were blooming, and everything seemed possible.

“Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder—the discovery of yourself.”

In the meantime, if you’re looking, here’s where you’ll find me.

corner

“In the forest, upon the oak, I was spinning the thread for a shirt.”

in the honeysuckle

In Ukraine, in 2019, I bought two vyshyvanky, the embroidered shirts that encode so much of traditional life and culture. The one on the right uses rhombus forms that I believe symbolize the unity of male and female principles, sown fields, prosperity.

geometric

The other vyshyvanka has poppies embroidered on the yoke and sleeves. The poppy is a protection against the evil eye.

on my sleeve

I remember the difficulty in choosing a vyshyvanka among the thousands available in the Kosiv market, each one more beautiful than the last. Some were so heavy with embroidery that I couldn’t imagine actually wearing them — and I wanted to wear mine. I still think of the one that got away, not in Kosiv but in Lviv, at the end of my trip, when my suitcase was full and I thought I’d spent enough money. That one? It was black, with appliqued yoke and sleeves in deep rose, sage green, a rich soft blue. Of course I should have bought it. And will I ever return to Ukraine? I hope so but who knows.

What I think of when I see my vyshyvanky in my closet is ghosts. I think of the mornings when I woke in Ukraine thinking of those my grandfather left behind. This woman, for example:

single woman

I have no idea who she was and why my grandfather kept her photograph, one of two, all his life. I showed her to the relations I met from his village and no one recognized her. She has inspired my work-in-progress and in the way that things work, maybe one day my novel will lead me to her name, who she was to my grandfather. A sister? A sweetheart? A section of my novel is set in Lviv and one of the characters is a curator of a small textiles museum. It’s serving as an impetus to learn more about Ukrainian textiles, the black and red threads that represent the generations and carry their stories forward. My stories are so sparse, so threadbare but I hope that one day I’ll know more of their shape and meaning, the poppies on my sleeve, the sown fields.

A few days ago, a short piece I wrote about Ukraine went up on the Canadian Writers Abroad site. Writing it filled me with the urgency to put things down, to record the stories, the silences, the names, and it also made me wonder if it’s too late to learn embroidery.  In “Museum of the Multitude Village” in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, there are lines of Ukrainian folk poetry threaded through. I loved this little song (though didn’t use it in my book); it’s a spring song, one of a group sung by girls as part of spring rituals.

 

O LADY VESNIANKA,
Where didst thou spend the winter?

“In the forest, upon the oak,
I was spinning the thread for a shirt.”

I thought of ghosts this morning as I hung my vyshyvanka in the honeysuckle by my garden gate. A very light breeze filled their sleeves, let them dance briefly in the new green leaves. Today is Vyshyvanka Day in Ukraine. That amazing man President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “This is our sacred amulet in this war. Happy Vyshyvanka Day, Ukraine!” I echo his words and hope that the power of thread and sacred stories serve as weapons against the terrible violence they are enduring. Slava Ukraini!

“You think that you have time. And then, all at once, you don’t.” (Jessie Greengrass)

bouquet

It’s the middle of May and it’s hardly stopped raining for weeks. The winter was colder than I remember it, apart from 2008 when there was so much snow everything sort of stopped. We couldn’t drive out. We couldn’t pick up Forrest who was returning from Ontario for Christmas by train (a story in itself, with frozen waterlines and delays) and had to wait for him at the bottom of the driveway, holding up a lantern so the Malaspina bus driver would know where to stop because all the usual familiar landmarks were whited out. Someone said the other day that the rain was better than last June’s heat dome but has it come to this, that one extreme is preferable to another?

At the library, I keep reaching for the books that offer not solace but a sense of doom. Last night when John came to bed, I was reading Carys Bray’s When the Lights Go Out, and I told him a little about it. A couple who are facing the climate emergency in different ways, one of them by standing in the town with placards, food stockpiling, and acquiring a breeding pair of rabbits for meat, the other knitting (to supplement the lost income of her husband whose landscaping job has gone sideways because of the sempiternal rain), collecting plastic on beaches, counting bees, and even planning a quilt:

A fabric map made of time and geography: nine blocks, beginning with this land as it was eighteen thousand years ago when a vast ice sheet receded, and water filled a depression in the glacial drift. She has started work on the central piece: the Moss, as it looks in present-day aerial photographs. An appliqued Tetris jumble of triangles and rectangles, parallelograms and squares, in a variety of earthy colours and corrugations.

At first I felt a kind of optimism, reading about the purposefulness of Emma, even as her husband stood with his signs in the town, his jacket forgotten as the rain poured down, but then I kept hearing their dehumidifier whirring non-stop, thought of the former lake, now a wetlands, that their land bordered on, reclaiming its old identity, and I had to put the book aside. I don’t sleep well anyway and I knew the night ahead would be difficult.

But maybe not as hard as the nights following my reading of The High House, by Jessie Greengrass, a really extraordinary novel of the coming of the end of the world as we know it. There’s water, yes, and preparations have been made, and a house high above the sea and the rivers emptying into it. There’s a man who remembers the last great flood and has knowledge of weather, tides. One of the characters remembers,

the beginning of things, when we were still uncertain, and it was still possible to believe that nothing whatever was wrong, barring an unusual run of hot Julys and January storms.”

The characters in this novel are prepared, because one of them, a climate scientist, knows what’s coming. But being prepared and surviving — well, those might be two very different things. We’re not sure in this novel if they are. Because the things the characters are dependent on are the things we’re all dependent on: reliable pollinators, birds, clean water, each other. What do you survive for, if everything has changed, the things you’ve loved have disappeared? You eat the precious but lumpy bread in the years you miraculously have wheat to grind. Is that worth it?

It was a book I wanted to talk about so I recommended it to my older son. He signed a copy out of the library and when we next talked on the phone, he told me he’d begun to read it, agreed it was very good, but he couldn’t continue with it. Too bleak. I felt such remorse for recommending it to someone with small children, having just survived a pandemic, having transitioned to working at home, sporadically home-schooling an older child (when the school closed because of high infection rates), and who needs to hope that the world is still a good place to be. Of course it is. I know that. (My fingers are crossed as I type this.) But when I lie awake in the night, hearing rain on the metal roof, remembering the heat of last summer, the atmospheric rivers that caused catastrophic flooding in November, the wildfires that tore through huge swathes of North America (and which rage still in New Mexico) and which burned an entire town in the blink of an eye, I am searching for a map through it for myself and for those I love. A map detailing routes through a treacherous world, threaded with rising rivers but some with safe crossings, crowded cities, mountain passes with uncertain weather, forests dense with smoke, and oceans marked with hic sunt dracones, potential dangers to be avoided, and perhaps even a terra incognita, a place which none of us have yet damaged with our machines and our greed. In the night I would be grateful for a map, one I could fold under my pillow, and sleep, knowing I could find a safe place if this one sinks or burns.