posts

“I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself.”

laid out

A few days after the pandemic required us to stay home, to keep to ourselves, I began an essay I called “The River Door”. It was a phrase that came to me out of thin air when I woke up one morning in mid-March, just after I’d finished the draft of a novella. What did it mean, that phrase? I waited for a bit to see. I waited for the door to open to show me what I needed to do next.

For the past year or so, intermittently, I’d been thinking about my family’s experience of the Spanish flu outbreak in Drumheller in 1918. I knew a few things but not the whole story. I still don’t know it. But as I delved into the material I’d been gathering, as the enormity of our own public health crisis became evident, I realized that the door opening in front of me was the story of my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the Red Deer River. I began to write a series of passages, not quite knowing how they would fit together. There was the squatters’ camp my grandmother lived in, there was the death of her husband, her brother, her infant daughter; and then there was the rough house she lived in on the other side of the river with her new husband (my grandfather). I wanted to find out more about the squatters’ camp. I’ve wanted to know more ever since spring of 2016 when I discovered that the homestead I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned was a fiction. A family fiction. Instead of a quarter-section, he had a shack on School Lands near Drumheller. I researched the saga of the camp, tried to find out more, and yes, I did find out a lot, thanks to my older son who sent me the digital version of a microfilm devoted to the bureaucratic wrangling surrounding the camp itself, those who lived there, and the future of the land.

How to write about this? How to organize the passages? I decided I’d do it in 3 parts. I’d have sections set on the south side of the Red Deer River, where the squatters’ camp was located (I thought, although I hadn’t been able to locate a good map of it), sections set on the north side of the river, where my family lived after leaving the camp, and sections serving as doors into the Spanish flu pandemic, doors opening and closing, doors used as stretchers, doors abandoned.

I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic myself. I woke so many nights and came downstairs to work on the essay, slowly, because, well, there was—there is—so much I don’t know. Not just about history but about writing, about the best way to remember people whom I barely knew, or never knew at all. The thing I wanted most of all was a map of the squatters’ camp. Somehow I thought that would give me ballast in the current of this work. I’d search online, I’d send emails into the unknown (and it truly was the unknown because replies never arrived), but then I did find a wonderful librarian at the University of Calgary, Peter Peller, who works in Spatial and Numeric Data Services, who told me that the library had acquired some maps from the Glenbow Collections and he thought there might be something there. But the holdings were restricted because of COVID-19. When it was safe to access them, he would see what he could find. I felt I was writing my way through the pandemic, yes, and part of what I was learning was patience. Eventually, after I’d forgotten I was even expecting maps, Peter sent me scanned copies of a number of maps and one of them was exactly what I needed. I knew this because I’d read correspondence detailing a survey of the School Lands where the squatters’ camp was located so that the land could be subdivided and sold. The map gave me such a door into the past, my grandmother and her first husband in their shack on the south side of the river, with their big garden on land adjacent to a creek. I looked through the door, saw them in their industry, surrounded by their children, the youngest asleep in a basket as my grandmother hung out laundry.

This morning I laid out the essay on the table. Because it doesn’t follow a simple narrative arc, I am trying to see how best to arrange the sections so that they allow a reader to share my sense of discovery and also sorrow. This story does not have a happy ending. Well, it doesn’t end, not in the usual way, because of course this was a century ago, more children were born, including my father, and here I am studying the pattern of pages on a pine table, moving a page here, another there. I know now that I need at least two more sections. One will be called “The Starland Fonds”. The other will look carefully at the map. The world is still not safe in the way it used to feel safe. It wasn’t safe then, when my grandmother buried her husband, her brother, and her infant daughter. I move the pages of her story which has become my story, our story, the doors both welcoming and forbidding. A phrase came to me as I woke one morning in mid-March and the pages are laid out, incomplete still, insubstantial, but with some promise in them, the words a kind of palimpsest, my time to hers, to ours.

 

“women who loved lakes”

lac le jeune

So to give Maggie the lake, with its rich presence, the birds, warm rocks, the pines, and even a gun, the Swamp Angel itself, to drop finally into the water, was to give a woman an everlasting place in the landscape. As horses ran through the grass of the Jocko Creek Ranch, the Two-Bit, and others unknown to me, women who loved lakes also unknown to me but Maggie’s was on any map if you knew the code. Knew the legend.

A month from today, I’ll be sitting on the shores of Lac Le Jeune, watching my grandchildren fish with their grandfather. I’ll be thinking about Ethel Wilson and her husband, one of them rowing, the other casting. I’ll be listening for loons and remembering a walk at one end of the lake in 2003 when I saw a wood duck jump down from a nesting box in a tree, followed the her ducklings, one two three. I’ll take a copy of my new book so that it too can know the lake it contains in its pages. Maybe I’ll even leave a copy on a bench.

“…sometimes too soon, sometimes too late.”

chimney

Do you ever wonder why some books become classics, on every list, discussed on every social platform, in every classroom, while others, ones you read with such admiration and joy, are known to so few? I am thinking of Sheila Watson’s first novella, but published long after A Double Hook, after her death, when attentions were directed to books with other qualities, writers with other reputations. I’m thinking of Deep Hollow Creek. We’ve been reading it during the past few weeks, mostly in 8 page increments, after dinner, and tonight we finished. It’s brief: 111 pages in this New Canadian Library edition. Reading aloud attunes the ear to certain constructions, certain attentions. I’ve read this novella perhaps 4 times. I would say it’s one of my favourite books. Set in Dog Creek, in B.C.’s Cariboo region, in the mid-1930s, it immerses the reader in both the sere landscape of that area, the dry hills, ranches, dens of coyotes, wild stallions fighting in the grasslands, roads almost impassable in winter, and also in the writing of 17th c. polymath Thomas Browne. A dog named Juno makes a nest for herself and her new puppies under an abandoned log pig-pen. A vain English-born wife teaches her husband the hesitation waltz while blue grouse court, “the hen dancing under a dock leaf while the cock drummed his desire.” You could read this book alongside any modernist novel of the same period (Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes) and I don’t believe you’d be disappointed. You’d be surprised. You’d find yourself pausing and wondering, reminding yourself this was a remote community in B.C. when a literary work set in its pleats and folds was unexpected.

     The clock ticked in the House, marking the hours, the days, the years. Down in the book went the days. Over the counter Mockett handed the flour and the shirts. The seasons came and went—sometimes too soon, sometimes too late. Man slipped into the sun’s embrace and out of it and lit coal-oil lamps to cheat the darkness.

What I hadn’t realized, reading it for the first time or the third, was how Sheila Watson has so beautifully delineated the two roles she took when she went to teach at Dog Creek in 1934. Stella is the schoolteacher, finding a way to make a life for herself in a cabin near the school, making friends with a couple who live in a house some distance from the community; and her friend, who joins her from the coast after Christmas, is the observer.

     You should become a contemporary Boswell, Stella remarked. You have enough opportunity to. You could turn your observation to account.

I don’t know that I won’t, said Miriam.

I never noticed before, I said to John as we were reading, that of course they are both of them Sheila Watson becoming a writer.

     When Miriam finally went to bed in the next room Stella would sit listening to the logs crack with the frost, listening to the brittle scraping of the frozen bush branches against the logs outside. Once she heard a child crying in the gulch out which the old Hudson’s Bay trail went over the hill. She thought it was a child lost and crying in the cold and she went to the door and stood until her eye-lashes froze against her face as she remembered that there were no children to cry. Only Lilac had children; the older ones were in the Mission School at the Rock and the bay would be safe in bed. Stella noticed the sky. It pressed down on the shoulders of the hills like an immense steel-blue mirror.

When the mirror is set up in the foyer, she thought…Then she shut the door quickly as if dropping a curtain between the mirror and the reflected face.

From the gulch came the crying; but more immediately in her consciousness was the scratching of the bushes against the logs.

So we finished reading and closed the book, one of us leaving the room and one of us sitting in the chair by the window, realizing how the sentences had entered, well, my nervous system (because of course it was me in the chair, caught in the spell of that frost and the child’s cry and the grouse courting in the dock leaves), wishing I had the means to alert the reading world to the magic of this beautiful book.

“The swallows fall from the sky”

deeper

This morning, as I was swimming, the swallows were dipping over the lake, turning, plucking insects hovering on the surface of the water. One of them swooped close enough for me to touch. The lake was still and quiet. We’ve built houses for the violet-green swallows that arrive every spring, maybe offspring of the ones who used to nest in the earlier boxes. When those ones deteriorated, John made new ones of cedar, with an ingenious system for opening the house to clean it in fall. The openings are exactly the dimensions recommended for swallows. Somehow these don’t have the cachet of the ones they replaced, painted plywood boxes made by Bill McNaughton who brought them to our children as gifts 30 years ago. But the chickadees use a couple of the houses John built and a squirrel spent a lot of time last winter enlarging the opening on the one nearest the deck so it could store cones.

I wonder if there’s anything more graceful than a swallow over the water? They come down from the trees, light falling, so swift and graceful. Leontyne Price captures something of that quick beauty in this aria from Puccini’s La Rondine (The Swallow). As I swam back and forth in the green swallow-haunted water, I thought of a poem I wrote long ago, one of the last I wrote, in fact, before that particular muse left me. I might have posted it before but looking for something in a desk drawer the other day, I found it a copy of it on yellowing paper. I’d dedicated it to two friends, now dead, one of whom loved opera and was my guide when I was first listening to singers, thinking of taking voice lessons myself. (I know that he would have preferred Montserrat Cabelle’s Chi il Bel Sogno de Doretta so I’ll link to that too and you can make up your own minds!)

La Rondine (for F. & D.)

Standing on the garden path, forgetting
what I’ve come for, scissors in hand
and a small blue bowl,
I watch the swallows reel and turn.

On two fenceposts of the garden,
little houses
wait for the nests of dry grass and feathers,
the round opening of home.
In the years before the swallows,
I came out
in the dark, paused in my thin white nightdress
among the new vines of peas, listening
with one ear for the baby,
one ear for owls. Going back
to the house where a single lamp burned,
softened by moths, I wanted nothing
so much as flowers and children,
baskets
of vegetables, my husband turning to me
as I entered our bed, cool from the garden.

Now I feel old among the broadbeans
and the rows of potatoes.
The swallows whirl and call in flight
as ardently as Magda
sang the high sweet notes
of youth and love
and I clip rosemary, fill  my small blue bowl
with remembrance.
So much still undone, children half-grown.
The swallows fall from the sky
so sudden
it takes my breath
away,
sometimes their wing-tips just touching,
like fingers.

Imagine being, what, 35, and thinking that you’ve left so much undone. Swimming, the swallows light on the surface of the lake, I want to tell that young woman to linger in the garden, linger among the vines and leaves. Every year the swallows return. And the years too.

 

beyond and beyond and beyond

summer deck

It’s hard for me to think beyond the pandemic. Before? Oh yes, with such nostalgia for things like the little trip we made to Victoria in January when we spent the actual afternoon of my 65th birthday in comfortable recliners, watching Little Women (which I loved), and later in January the drive into Vancouver because one son was there for some math work and it seemed like a good idea to meet him for dinner. Nostalgia for a dinner in February where I made Paula Wolfert’s rabbit casserole for two couples we’ve known for nearly 35 years and where we sat at the table for hours, talking and laughing, and when we walked them out to their cars, the sky was glittering with winter stars. So before? Yup. But I can’t really imagine my way forward. Or I can, in the practical sense, though how long will we need to pack masks, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes for a simple trip to the grocery store?

It’s what we will come to that I can’t imagine. How we will enter the wider world when we’re assured it’s safe to do so. What that world will look like, feel like. Later this month, some of my family will come to us for a visit. I feel shy at the prospect. (Is it safe to hug?) My daughter asked, Do you want us to wear masks in the house? Of course I don’t. We’ll wear them when we shop but mostly we’ll be here, where you can’t see another house, where the woods take off from the edges of the mossy area we call a lawn. We’ll eat large meals under the vines and drink some of the excellent wine I have saved for their visit. Two small grandsons will help John bring up the last of the firewood down in the old orchard. We’ll go early for swims, when mostly it’s just us or else the man who rakes the sand and cleans the one outhouse each morning.

After that visit, we’ll travel to Lac Le Jeune (Swamp Angel!) to meet with more of our family, settling in for a handful of nights. Our granddaughter can fish with her grandpa, using the rod she’s been practicing with. I don’t think of it as expanding our bubble exactly (in the language of our public health officials) but rejoining our pod.

What then, though? Once the visits are over? I can’t imagine the months ahead. I don’t mean that I dread them but I don’t know how to move into them gracefully, bravely. What we’ve never thought possible is now possible. Maybe even probable.

In my recently published novella, The Weight of the Heart, I note in my acknowledgements that Izzy, who is working on a thesis about the work of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson, hasn’t read Watson’s first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, because in the time-frame of my book (1970s) it hasn’t yet been published, though it was written in the 1930s. John and I are reading it together and tonight I was sitting in the big rocker by the fire (weather is decidedly unsummery!), listening as John read these passages:

     For the time being she had lost her bearings, she felt, and been engulfed in the vast rolling waves of the folding and unfolding earth.

She had supposed that she could measure out life with a school compass. The universe pinned flat on a drawing board.

For two weeks now life would be centred again in the abstract point which had determined motion in the past. Once that past was present. But the present dies every minute, if it exists at all. It is and it is not. The mind preserves in amber the body of the bee. The honey, the comb itself, is wasted and spent.

The main character, Stella, is preparing to leave the small Cariboo community where she is the school teacher to spend Christmas with her family down on the coast. When she returns after the holiday, she will be setting up house on her own, not rejoining the taciturn farmer and his family with whom she has been boarding. When I listened to those sentences, I heard a direct message from the page to my heart, from before to the possibilities of beyond, of after. I can’t imagine the months ahead, what they’ll bring and what I’d hoped would last forever will show itself to be inert, in amber. I didn’t expect to have to measure the days with sanitizer and clean masks, the terrible possibility of infection. It’s not that I’m unhappy or dissatisfied. My life is privileged in so many ways. But what is coming is unknown, shadowed. Perhaps this has always been the case and I’ve refused to think of the dangers. Yet last night the owls were calling, at least 3 of them, as they always have, and I listened with the same joy as I’ve always had, hearing them. Somewhere in my desk drawer there’s a school compass, a little rusty, but still usable, capable of fixing the abstract point, and everything that circles it, beyond and beyond and beyond.

 

8 lopsided stars

8 stars

Earlier in June, I wrote about stars, seeing them, making them. Making them, as in piecing together blocks for a quilt. I’ve made more than 30 quilts in the past 30 years and it’s a practice I find I need in order to give my hands their own work. When I do that, I focus my thinking in a way I can’t otherwise do. I know this sounds strange but for me it’s true. And something else is true. I’m not good at sewing. Each time I begin the work of making a quilt, I tell myself that I will take care, proceed slowly, do the things that good seamstresses do: observing the seam allowances, trimming corners, using the proper tension. But something happens and my own careless nature takes over. If I’ve planned a quilt with a dozen blocks to fit together, no two will be exactly the same size. Not one will be perfect. In a way it doesn’t matter because the sashing that one uses between blocks evens everything out. I’d like to say this isn’t geometry after all but you know something? It is. And mine is a very clumsy geometry.

Anyway, the day before yesterday I finished piecing together 8 stars. This morning I took some pieces of potential sashing to see what might work best. I want these stars to stand out. With some colours of sashing, they’d settle into the background quietly, like a night sky barely visible through cloud. I tried them on a background of butter yellow (a cotton sheet I bought as a “second”, knowing that it would make a good backing for a quilt, or cut into strips, it could be sashing). But the stars sort of faded away. I have some red but placing stars in a red sky seems a little ominous. The yellow print in the photograph above might be ok. I’m not sure yet.

The weather is unsettled. A day or two of warm sun followed by cool temperatures and soft rain. We swam this morning in mist, the water warmer than the air. When I was up briefly in the night, I did see three stars to the south of our house, bright in the boughs of the firs, as though they were being carried through the darkness and cloud.

This morning, on my news feed, a surprise, among the noise of Trump and the sound of the 53 bells of the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen singing “Forever Young” in 1995, so young themselves, their harmony so beautiful. I held my phone and cried, for the innocence lost, half a million dead in this pandemic, those alone in these difficult times, for the lines, May you always know the truth/And see the light surrounding you, for all of us here on earth with our hope and our sorrow. When I am finally doing the part of the quilt that I love most (May your hands always be busy), the patient stitching of layer to layer, thread finding its way through and under and across the stars, each stitch connected to the one before it, and the one following, I’ll be humming the song as I work. May you build a ladder to the stars/and climb on every rung.

lake

morning lake 2

The clear waters of the Wei flow eastwards, and Chien-ko is far away: between the one who has gone and the one who remains no communication is possible.
It is human to have feelings and shed tears for such things; but the grasses and flowers of the lakeside go on for ever, unmoved.

—Du Fu, “By the Lake”, prose translation by David Hawkes

Swimming this morning, I wondered, where does the word “lake” come from? I was stroking my way the length of the beach, adding on about 100 meters today because I didn’t want to get out. I was deep in the green water of the lake I’ve been swimming in for 40 years and it never occurred to me before today to wonder at the etymology of lake.

“body of water surrounded by land and filling a depression or basin,” early 12c., from Old French lack (12c., Modern French lac) and directly from Latin lacus “pond, pool, lake,” also “basin, tank, reservoir” (related to lacuna “hole, pit”), from PIE *laku- “body of water, lake, sea” (source also of Greek lakkos “pit, tank, pond,” Old Church Slavonic loky “pool, puddle, cistern,” Old Irish loch “lake, pond”). The common notion is “basin.”

I wondered about origins, how a lake comes into being. I think the lake I swim in is the result of glacial processes. A creek from the lake drains into another nearby lake and it was once a fjord, now separated from the Strait of Georgia by an emerged sill. We were always told by old-timers that our lake is salt at its deepest levels. Ancient rock paintings on the other lake list crayfish, salmon, and other fish and there are coho runs into various creeks. The lake I swim in is home to a fall-spawning race of cutthroat trout—my older son once conducted a census of the trout as part of a science project. We spent many hours on the bridge across the creek, watching for fish in the chilly water.

This morning, swimming, I was filled with nostalgia for summers past, summers gone, and all the times we piled into the car with towels, buckets, masks, flippers, the dog, bamboo mats to lie on, baskets of snacks, cold beer, nets for catching (and releasing) tiny fish, and various inflatable toys (that never kept their air).

Where does the word “lake” hold? It is one of the most summery words. It carries the promise of cool water, ducks, swallows dipping over the surface, the sound of children racing to its shallows, the scent of drying bodies, sand between toes, the way the sky looks as you swim on your back, the cedars filtering sunlight with their generous branches. …but the grasses and flowers of the lakeside go on for ever, unmoved. 

morning lake 1

redux: aria for early summer

postcard 2

 

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932)

How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John.

evening reading

deep hollow creek

We began reading together in the evenings last winter, stopped for the summer, and then continued again this winter. Our first book together was Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. This winter we read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, followed by Volume One of the Tales of Chekhov. Then Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney, followed by Outside History by Eavan Boland. We pass the books back and forth, bringing to each our own reading styles, our own cadences. We talk a little about what we’re reading but mostly one of us reads, the other listens. I’ve grown to love this.

Two nights ago, the day after we finished Outside History, we were wondering what we’d read next. For some reason we were talking about my recently published novella, The Weight of the Heart, and I was explaining about the notes at the back, how I wanted to include reference to Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, her first work of fiction, written about her first teaching job at Dog Creek in 1934 but not published until 1992*. I wanted to reference it because I think it is a small perfect gem but the protagonist of my book wouldn’t have known about it in 1976 or 1977 when she was searching for traces of the fiction of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson in the landscapes of British Columbia. Anyway, I was explaining this and then I asked John if he’d read it. No, he hadn’t. So let’s make that the book we read over the next few weeks. Sure, he said.

When you read aloud, you hear a text that you don’t necessarily find on the page. You hear what I think of as the undercurrents of the language. In this book, about a small community in the Cariboo, you hear the laconic voices of some of the characters (the dour hardscrabble farmers), the more voluble chatter of the woman who owns the store and who is so self-referential that I think I might have tuned her out when reading to myself (but it’s impossible to do that reading aloud!), and you also hear the heightened language framing the narrative. You realize just a few sentences in that it won’t be an ordinary story.

She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s frame, and Harvey’s microcosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl.

The shift between metaphysics and the quotidian detail of life in houses of rough boards, fenced by weathered poles, surrounded by trees filled with fool hens—this is characteristic of Watson’s work of course but reading aloud you are taken by how her language accommodates these shifts. It’s so exhilarating. Is this what it’s like, asked John, meaning all the gossip as the characters are introduced. Yes, I said, but of course there’s so much more. And there is! After a sad description of Rose Flower’s terrible bread (“cold and grey and sour”), which the narrator Stella realizes is Rose’s “peculiar emblem”, there is this paragraph:

Can the validity of this emblem—or of any other emblem—she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross—and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.

The ledge of Stella’s window overlooks the narrow cleft where the house is built against a hill but somehow it is also an aperture. This is a book to take your time with and reading aloud will allow us to do just that.

The cover of this New Canadian Library edition features a painting of Lynn Valley, North Vancouver, by Frederick Varley. But it could have featured a painting by another member of the Group of Seven: A.Y. Jackson. In the 1950s, he stayed at the stopping house in Dog Creek, owned by the Place family, and painted what he saw around him. Hilary Place, grandson of the original Place of Dog Creek, wrote a book about his family and his community. Sheila Watson has a cameo in the book—as Sheila Doherty, she was his grade 8 teacher. On the cover of Dog Creek: A Place in the Cariboo is a beautiful view of the deep hollow threaded through by a blue creek, painted by A.Y. Jackson and given to his hosts.

*Deep Hollow Creek was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction that year but it didn’t win. The English Patient did…

 

“Were you my possible other life?”

lake2 (2)

It was not actually raining when we went down for our swim this morning but there was fine mist. The air wasn’t warm though the water, not yet at its summer temperature, felt the same as it’s felt since we first started swimming three weeks ago. Once I’m fully submerged, I forget it’s chilly and do my strokes beyond the ropes delineating the beach area. I’m out of bounds but not really too far out in the lake beyond the shore.

I’ve been thinking about liminal space lately. Maybe we all are. Liminal, from the Latin root limen, meaning threshhold. From my anthropology courses in the last century, I remember that it was a term used for the middle part of a rite of passage, when you have left one stage to transition to another, which you have not quite attained. It’s a space of uncertainty. As we negotiate the new routes and pathways that might allow us to travel safely in our daily lives, so much of what we have known and done is left behind. Or our relationship to our old lives and lifeways has shifted. In the night I lie awake, wondering if I’m prepared for the future, do I have the right guides, have I paid attention to the signs, do I know the dangers and can I meet them with courage and with love? I don’t know yet. The footing feels uncertain, the boundaries unclear.

I recently read Hua Hsu’s profile of Maxine Hong Kingston in the New Yorker and I was struck at several points by Kingston’s apprehension of ghost lives, the ones that are sort of adjacent to our own. As part of a delegation of writers visiting southern China in the 1980s, she travelled with Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko:

One day, they were on a boat going down the Li River, and Morrison saw a young woman doing laundry along the shore. Morrison waved to her and said, “Goodbye, Maxine.” She gets it, Kingston thought. If immigration hadn’t brought her to the U.S., “that could have been me,” she said. “Were you my possible other life?”

When I was in Ukraine last September with my husband and daughter, we were at a celebration in the Carpathian Mountains where we feasted, sang, laughed, and danced. My daughter leaned to me at the table at one point and said, “That woman looks so much like you.” I looked and did she? I think she did. I recognized myself in her. After a prolonged and lively dance, I sought her out and with the help of another woman who spoke some English I told her what my daughter had said. We touched each other’s face and held each other’s hands. My sister, she said, laughing. So much of that trip was me looking at houses high up mountain slopes or else beyond the fields by the road as we drove to my grandfather’s village, not imagining myself into them, but occupying that space in a way that I can’t explain. I was not the woman in the van but out of my body, up in the soft grass, looking down, a faraway look in my eyes.

in the carpathians

In “The River Door”, the long essay I am just finishing, I realize how this sense I have of being between lives has influenced the way I am structuring the piece. There are three strands of narrative. One of them I’ve justified to the left margin of the page. Another to the right. But there’s also one that hovers between the two perspectives—I could call them early and late, or historical and contrived, imagined, or now and then—and I’ve centered those passages. They’re brief, lyrical, and when I think about them now, I realize they’re thresholds. Step forward, step back, stand for a moment in the space between what you know and what you don’t, the living and the dead (because it’s an essay in part about the Spanish flu), the past and the present.

They need help desperately at Drumheller,” she said. “The flu seems to have taken a particularly virulent form among the miners. They even believe it’s the Black Death of Medieval Europe all over again. There’s no hospital but the town council has taken over the new school to house the sick.”

Where were they living when the flu arrived? I see them, mid-river, a wagon of their belongings, paused. Paused between homes, between what they’d known and what was to come, the moment a hinge on the river door.

When I read the profile of Maxine Hong Kingston, I kept thinking, Yes, this is so familiar. Leslie Marmon Silko remembered visiting an old storytellers’ hall in southern China and how she realized that Kingston’s work is “storytelling at its highest level, where webs of narrative conjure the ghosts that stand up and reveal all.” I need this kind of storytelling now, to guide me through this liminal space where I no longer feel safe earth under my feet. I am waving goodbye to the woman in the Carpathian Mountains, telling myself hello.