better days

the bench to be

Today we began the bench for the greenhouse, the one to hold seedlings and pots; it will sit along the west wall, the long wall, which is 10 feet. Luckily we had some cedar boards under the house, a little longer than we need them to be, so it seems like a good idea to use one of them. I pulled it out and we measured and decided to cut a bit from both ends because one end had a crack and the other was quite wide. But mostly? Perfect. This is a board from one of the cedars we had taken down at least 13 years ago. One of them was too close to the house and the other had grown from a weedy scrap to a big tree in the time it took to blink. And it was shading the vegetable garden. I wrote about these trees in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, which is why I know how long ago they were taken down.


When John cut the board we’re using to size, it was as though it was fresh cedar, the scent so spicy and beautiful that I remembered everything about the day it was made. I remember the guys coming with their portable mill and cutting lengths into boards and how we used some of those boards for various projects. I remember how one of the guys had his own peculiar odour (we’d been warned) and how he used his big saw and mill with the precision of a cabinetmaker. These planks are wild-edged, so that you can see where the branches were, the contours of the trunk.

I brought up our old sawhorses to set in place behind the greenhouse so John can cut old boards from our original decks, the ones that were in place for 30 years or so before we rebuilt them for various reasons, saving the usable boards for a good moment, which is this one. Look at them, he said. You can see where I almost cut through in places. And look at the rust on the brackets! Yes, I thought. Look at them. They’ve seen better days. I’m glad to be able to use the old deck boards, John said, arranging them to measure and cut down slightly. We have become our parents, I think, saving everything to be used again, or repurposed for something entirely undreamed of, in years past.

saw horses

They’ve seen better days but so have we. Or have we? We’ve seen good days. Also the past year, which has been filled with difficulties due to surgery, loneliness, anxiety. But maybe this act of making a bench will serve as a hinge to openings. More light, the return of friendships gone fallow because of distance and fear, and even arrangements of seedlings on its beautiful surface, growing, growing, because that’s what it is in them to do, given the right conditions.

The pile of lumber grew—the beam, some 2x10s, 2x8s (these were full dimensions, as the boards were unplaned), some planks which began as one dimension but then tapered as the logs narrowed. I could see them as benches or tables, balanced on stumps. I kept touching them. Their surfaces were damp, the inner mysteries of the wood released to light. On one chunk of wood, hardly a board, the grain formed an eye, elongated and ovoid—a god or a raven staring out. When I smelled my hands afterwards, the incense lingered, familiar and sibylline.
              –from “Thuja plicata: Nest Boxes”, in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees


you are here

you are here


Look, he said, showing you his phone. This is where we were 5 years ago today. Five years ago today we were in Edmonton, our granddaughter was not yet 2, her brother unborn, one cousin living in Ottawa and a second cousin years in the future. You were here. She was wearing a pink tutu and an flame-coloured parka and the hat you made her when she was born. Last night she asked for The Seven Silly Eaters and you read that to her and her brother, along with a Curious George, and you sat on the deck with the books while the tiny screen on your phone shared their faces, the little toys and toothbrushes and strawberry-flavoured toothpaste the dentist had given them after their check-up. They showed you their teeth. You showed them the herbs you’d repotted, the iron frog in one of the pots, the clay robin in another. You are here. Just for the moment you are here.


Your friend tells you she has tomato plants for you so you stop by after your swim. She is there, her husband too, and another friend. You haven’t seen them for months. They are just up the road but it hasn’t seemed safe to see them though now that better weather is here, you think that might change. There are 16 plants, 9 different cultivars, and you find a place for them in your new greenhouse. When it’s time to plant them out, you will remember your friend at her greenhouse door, handing her husband the box to put in your car. You are here, you are in a familiar place, the scent of tomato plants green and heady, and maybe by summer you will eat together again, sit under the stars, share the goodness of your gardens.


When you wake in the night, you are in a panic. Yesterday’s infection numbers were too high, you couldn’t sleep, and then you could, but when you woke at 3 a.m. you couldn’t stop your heart from racing. So you turned on your reading light while you husband dreamed next to you, you picked up your book, Gabriel Byrne’s stunning Walking with Ghosts, and you read for two hours while the only sound in the house was you turning pages. Turn the page. You are more than half-way through the story. You are here.


You are home. Your husband has just put another log on the fire against April’s capricious cold. There is new snow high on the mountain. You are safe here where no one comes. Coffee in the pot, ginger cookies in the old pottery crock. And Sam Lee singing:

Oh starlight, oh starlight
I’m walking through the starlight
Lay this body down
I see moonlight
I’m walking through the moonlight
Lay this body down*

You are here. A little stack of books for when the children call for a story. The scent of daffodils. Walking with Ghosts half-finished. Too much has happened. You are here.

*”Lay This Body Down“, from Old Wow.

an empty chair

blue chair

This morning, in beautiful sunlight, I asked John to take some photographs of me. I need one for the cover of Blue Portugal and it seems dishonest to use an older one. Does anyone ever like photographs of themselves? Who is the person we imagine we’ll see when we look at what the camera has found? It wasn’t me this morning. Who was that woman with her droopy eyes and tight smile? I didn’t know her. Maybe we’ll try again another day. But looking out after I’d said, No more!, I saw my Steller’s jay friend on a branch behind the chair we’d used (blue after all…) and I tried to focus on the bird, snapped the empty chair instead.

Late yesterday afternoon I finished a draft of an essay I began last week, an essay about how we went into Vancouver in mid-October for John’s scheduled double hip replacement surgery at UBC Hospital and what happened after. It’s long. It might not be any good and it might be too personal. But I felt that I was doing something worthwhile as I wrote, remembered, consulted daybooks and medical instructions. I’ve called it “Seams” because I was making two quilts at the same time, I was changing the dressings on John’s incisions, and I was reading about a geological occurrence called tension gashes, when rock stretches and veins of quartzite or calcite “stitch” the resulting fractures.

Here’s a little bit of the essay from the last section.

What we did. We went from home with equipment we’d borrowed or bought, we wore our masks into the hospital where you were taken away to be opened and given new hips, and when you woke, you had no feeling in your right foot. For a week you got out of your bed in a high ward and you learned how to move in a new way, helped by men who were strong and kind and who taught you to adjust for your injury, who taught you to use the stairs, to lie on your bed and teach your legs to work again. Sometimes you cried, because it hurt and because you were disoriented. I did too, for those reasons and others. At night you were alone. At night I was alone, stitching, or reading about a woman who entered hell and returned, parts of her body missing. When we came home to the house we built 4 decades ago, we were not the same.“Diagnosis,” said Anne Boyer, “takes information from our bodies and rearranges what came from inside of us into a system imposed from far away.” But I remember after the second hospitalization, after your heart had stopped fluttering like a frightened bird in your chest and after the foxglove had become habit and after your doctor told you to consider yourself no longer at risk, just take your medications, and after we’d learned a new pattern for our days and nights, we held hands in our bed, the stars as bright as they’d always been, Christmas coming, owls in the darkness, and it was each other we loved, the beauty of our fire in the mornings, poetry some afternoons as you read me Louise Gluck or I read you Stanley Kunitz:

The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only...

redux: “I’m always five hundred miles away from home”

Note: this was from July 2019. This morning, Good Friday, I was thinking that last Easter was the first family event we’d had to postpone due to the pandemic. We’d planned to drive to Edmonton but that wasn’t possible. I don’t know how many miles away I feel this morning but maybe more than five hundred.


A perfect day. Sunlight, ocean, the voices of my grandchildren, the beauty of my children and their partners in the water. We all drove down the Coast to take Angie to the plane for her flight back across Georgia Strait to Victoria and we had time for a picnic at Trail Bay. Kelly noticed the blue mountains across the water and I told her that was the island where her other grandparents live, the ones she’ll see on the weekend. We’d gone to a small pebble beach, the tide low-ish, rocks warm in the sun. I knew my older son Forrest would swim; he keeps a life-list of water: rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans. And I thought the children would wade. But then Cristen went in, buoyant in the tide. Then Brendan. John stripped off his shorts, took off his unders, and put the shorts on again. (We’d already had our morning swim in Ruby Lake so when we were getting ready to drive down to Sechelt, we both agreed we wouldn’t bother taking our bathing suits. Famous last words.) I was dying to swim but there I was, in a linen dress. What to do? Oh, Mum, said my daughter, swim in your underwear. So I did. Off came the dress and who was to know the sports bra and striped underpants weren’t a bathing suit? Well, I think it was obvious they weren’t. But I didn’t care.

eddy and grandad

It was so wondrous to swim in that mild green water. To let yourself be carried out a distance, then lifted back to shore. To look at the blue mountains beyond. I haven’t felt like this since I swam in Portugal, said Forrest. Not so alive in the water, so buoyant. And me? Maybe not since Crete. The children found rocks, a few shells, one fell and cried, three went into the water, and afterwards we walked along the shore for ice-cream. When we came home, I took out the compost and saw a weasel in one corner of the new compost box, looking back at me, its eyes bright and alert. It slipped out of the box but when I brought the children out to look for it, we saw it in between the two boxes, waiting for us to leave. I think it might have a den under the box; it might be feeding its young on the mice that come for the seeds and vegetable parings.

Last night my children and their partners went out for supper to Egmont while John and I cared for our grandchildren. They ate a simple supper, had their baths, and we read them stories before bed. We sang songs. In Arthur’s room, I tried to remember the words to “Five Hundred Miles”. My favourite version the one Roseanne Cash sings on The List, her album of songs from her father Johnny’s list of essential country songs.

All these years and all these roads
Never led me back to you
I’m always five hundred miles away from home
Away from home, away from home
Always out here on my own
I’m still five hundred miles away from home
I’m still five hundred miles away from home

Later I read in the kitchen while the outside lamp was softened by moths. When the kids returned from Egmont, I went to bed and listened to them laughing downstairs. John was already asleep. They live so far from this home but still they return. Today Angie turned to me as we sat on a log watching the others swim and said, I don’t want to leave. I knew what she meant. They’ll all be gone on Saturday and the house will be tidy again, but quiet. Away from home, away from home, always out here on my own. I am that woman swimming in her pink striped underpants in the deep generous ocean, looking at her family on the shore.

hanging a door

wecome in

On Monday, John finished constructing the door to the greenhouse and we ceremoniously fit it into its hinges. It opens and closes! The roof vent does the same! Yesterday was a shopping day down the Coast so we didn’t do any work on it but bolts were purchased to finish off the base (we were short a few) and I bought a thermometer for the wall. When we came up the driveway after our swim this morning, I saw the greenhouse standing in its place, looking exactly as I’d hoped it would look. I have to confess there were moments when I doubted we’d get to this point. We didn’t mean to put it together ourselves, though our younger selves would certainly have rolled up their sleeves and got to work, not on a kit (which is what we bought) but on something built from wood and old windows and funky as anything. Given our present circumstances—one of us with a post-surgical injury; the other one more of a helper than a builder—we ordered the kit because someone we know said he’d come to help us with it. But then he wasn’t available. The kit sat in the carport and I remember I said, Oh, come on. We can do it. There’s no rush. We’ll do it slowly. It’s not that we can’t do this stuff. It’s more that it’s difficult for John to move around on uneven ground because of balance (that foot!) but once he’s in place, with a chair handy, he’s fine. He has good spatial sense and can decipher plans and instructions. I’m sort of hopeless at that but I’m strong.

And slowly it was. There was the base to consider. The place we had in mind is on a slope behind our house. We’d need to work out a way to build up three sides against the top one. Rock! And lots of it. I can lift 50 or 60 pounds reasonably easily and the biggest rocks were not easy to lift. I’d trundle 4 of them at a time up in the wheelbarrow (up!) and we’d fit them into the frame we’d built of 4×4 (again, that had to be lugged up to the site and it was waterlogged so very heavy; we needed to square that frame and level it and then wait a day and level it again) on posts set on concrete pavers. So rock, then smaller rock to wedge into the gaps between the bigger ones.  Once that was done, then we had to fill the inner part with sand. Luckily we also needed to have work done on our driveway so the guy who came to do that brought sand and used his small excavator to carry buckets of it to dump in the base. Then pavers. There’s a space of 9″ along one side and end and the idea was to fill that space with beach stones. Yesterday I gathered some bags of those at Trail Bay and put a few down last night, just to see. Today I’ll do the rest.


That 2″x2″ wooden brace you see in the top photograph (there’s one on the long wall too) will come off and permanent corner braces will keep the post and beam solid. John will build proper steps to the door, wide ones, with room for a potted tree or two. I intend to bring one of my big Chinese pots to sit on the ground by the steps, with water in it for frogs. And a waterbarrel at the other corner to take rain from the little gutters (you can’t really see them but they’re there) for watering inside.

But right now? We have some planks under the house, wild-edge cedar from a tree that came down many years ago and that we had milled (there’s a passage about it in Mnemonic), using some of the lumber for various projects. I’ll drag them out.  John’s going to make a bench for one of the long walls, to put seedling trays on, and we have some other shelving units to find room for. Maybe by the weekend I’ll be bringing out my little olive trees and other slightly tender plants for their new home. Last night I put some tubs of greens I’d begun elsewhere—arugula and mesclun—and they looked very happy this morning. T

The news is terrible. New variants, coups, the worst of human nature coming to the surface in ways I’d thought we’d left behind. I think of Du Fu:

The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower’s splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.*

The country may be broken, though hopefully not irreparably so. I’ll grow greens and lay beach stones in sand to cobble together new possibilities here at home.

*translation by David Hinton

“something happened”


Last night I was reading Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections From Life, her 2019 collection of essays. I’d read a couple of the pieces in journals and liked them enough to want to read the whole collection. Which is stellar. They take as subject matter the author’s body, its traumas and illnesses, and move from Gleeson’s early wish for a miracle by bathing in the spring at Lourdes on a school trip to a vigil by a beloved aunt’s bedside as she dies. I kept two essays aside to read in the morning, this morning, with my coffee; and once I’d put the book on my bedside table and reached to turn out my reading light, something happened. For a month now I’ve been thinking about an essay with no idea how to proceed. In some ways I was too busy to write it. I was revising the essays in Blue Portugal, writing notes on graphic elements I hoped the designer would consider in his work on the book, scanning and writing captions for the images that will appear in some of the essays. I was having discussions with one of my editors about specific technical issues and how to solve them. In the back of my mind I had some beginnings, some threads, tangly and knotted, and I knew I’d need to tease them out eventually and find out where they were going, or (in this case) where they’d come from. A little voice whispered from time to time, Is this really your material to explore? Because the threads are connected to the surgery John had in October, what happened then, and after, and how I — we — learned to adjust our expectations about the future.

After I’d put Constellations aside, I heard (there is no other way to explain this) a beginning to the essay I wanted to write:

By the big window, curtains drawn against the delicate maples where finches gathered during the daylight as the pretty leaves fell, by the big window I sit with the two quilts I’ve brought with me for the duration: a patchwork of 6 inch squares arranged in a grid, a Christmas gift for a young woman I love; and a village of 4 log cabin squares gathered around wide green trails. At night I thread 3 needles at a time with lengths of strong cotton and I push them in and out, drawing the layers of pieced work, soft batting, and plain backing together. The stitches make their own new pathways on the surface, tiny marks like the trail a finch leaves in the damp earth beneath the trees. I see these marks when I leave to walk to the hospital twice a day, the ripe seeds plucked from fallen maple samaras by the hungry finches.

I went into John’s study (his is adjacent to our bedroom while mine required a trip downstairs) and fished around in his recycling box to find some envelopes to make notes on. I filled two sides of the 6×9 Access Copyright envelope and one side of a business-sized envelope from a publisher and put them both with Constellations for the morning. This morning. When I came downstairs to where John was sitting by the fire with his breakfast, I asked if he would mind if I wrote about the experience of caring for him in the aftermath of the surgery and its complications. He was quiet for a moment and then said ok. Maybe it will be something I write just for the two of us but maybe not. What happened between us took us to a new level of both intimacy and loss and do we really want to go there again? I know I have to untangle the threads but I also realize that what I find out about them might not make sense to anyone but us.

I don’t know…

rescue bee

…if this is a white-shouldered bumblebee or maybe a mixed bumblebee but I do know it was quiet on the spare surgical mask I carried it on from the parking lot in front of the IGA this morning to the mahonia blossoms by the school field and that it was reluctant to climb from the mask to the flowers but eventually it did, sort of hoisting itself up using its front legs and I thought how that small moment meant everything in a week where I haven’t had much sleep and where the great quiet of the night has provided too much time for thinking dark thoughts circling around endless weeks and months of masks and no contact with loved ones and grandchildren growing up too far away. The small moment when the bee stepped forward, reluctantly, into the sweetness of the yellow flowers, a few of their bells open on the drooping racemes, that moment is with me as I change to my oldest jeans and head outside to help put on the greenhouse roof.

a mythos, squared


I haven’t thought a lot about the word “mythos” lately. Why would I? We are living through a time that we have a word for, “pandemic”, but what it’s doing to our sense of safety, of community, of connection to those we love, well, that will have to be figured out in some meaningful way.

But yesterday and today we were working (slowly) on the greenhouse we are making, late in our lives, with the hope that we will be able to overwinter some of the tender plants that currently fill the pretty sunroom we built 30 years ago off our bedroom and where we will be able to extend the already generous growing season here on the west coast. In a way it’s too late. But in another way it’s a project we can work at and hang onto the scrap of hope that I feel when I think of it completed on the little rise of moss behind our house. For most of the first year of this pandemic, I’ve been able to sustain a sense of optimism about how the virus will be contained, understood, and that we will all be vaccinated, given new courage to enter the world that’s been beyond us for months, the world where we eat with people, embrace our friends and family members, travel to see places and people, visit the houses of those we are connected to. During the period of intense activity devoted to John’s recovery from bilateral hip replacement surgery and the injury sustained during that process, I didn’t have time to think too deeply about the future because the present took every ounce of energy I had. Now it seems impossible to me that I actually felt energetic because I’ve lost that source of optimism that nourished the daily work. Maybe I haven’t truly lost it but it’s very hard to locate these days.

But mythos? As I was getting bolts and washers ready for John to secure into the metal base of the greenhouse to fasten it to the wood frame we constructed, I saw the instructions for the kit we are using. We ordered our greenhouse from Palram and the one that suited us best was the Mythos. I’d forgotten it was called that. It’s simple, a 6 foot by 10 foot structure, with twin walls, UV protected. We made a floor of concrete pavers set into sand and there’s a border on two sides which we’ll cobble with beach stones. So it’s the Mythos, rising from the base, slowly, because we’re no longer young, and just maybe I felt a little rush of hope as John put in the first bolt and we held a measuring tape to both diagonals to make sure the structure will be square.

μῦθος, mythos: A story or set of stories relevant to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group. A tale, story, or narrative, usually verbally transmitted, or otherwise recorded into the written form from an alleged secondary source.

Our story is an old one. We wanted to make a home for ourselves. We raised our children. We wrote our books. We grew apples and kale and small French fingerling potatoes, their creamy flesh veined with pink. We had three dogs, now none. 30 years ago, even 20, when there was still time for it to make a difference, we’d have built a greenhouse ourselves, with wood and old windows. Maybe mixed cement in the red wheelbarrow you can see in the top photograph–it was used for mixing all the concrete for the footings of our house– and made a solid foundation. Now we are following the instructions to build a Mythos from a kit, opening the little bags of bolts and attachments, squaring the corners because we know how to do that.

I have three olive trees in pots waiting for the greenhouse to be ready. One of them is an Arbequina I bought last year and two are unknowns, tags lost on the half-price table where I found them in a local store. Symbols of peace and friendship, sacred to Athena, they are long-lived, even mythic. Remember George Seferis’s beautiful “Mythistorema”?

The olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers
the rocks with the wisdom of our fathers
and our brother’s blood alive on the earth
were a vital joy, a rich pattern
for the souls who knew their prayer.
Let them be that. Let them grow as we age, let them ask us to say a prayer for the millions dead, widowed, orphaned, and let the Mythos shelter them on cold winter nights. Let the bolts we are sinking hold, let the moss repair itself, let the tree frogs find the olive trees, the snakes discover the warm of sunlight on concrete pavers, and let us all feel the beginnings of hope again.
mythos squared

redux: “What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat…”

Note: this is from March 20, 2018. The Vernal Equinox is tomorrow and I wanted to know what happened in other years. This year? Well, a dump truck is here, with sand for the base of the greenhouse we are building, and I suspect we’ll be laying the paving stones on top of that in readiness for erecting the actual structure.

first day of spring

First day of spring, and it’s grey. But last night we went to have dinner with our friends on Oyster Bay and it was like so many dinners we’ve had over the 32 years of our friendship. Arriving before the sun went down to a bay filled with goldeneyes, buffleheads. The whoosh of the tide. The smell of woodsmoke as we gathered by the fire to drink a glass of champagne (because they invited us, 4 of us, to celebrate my recent nomination for a B.C. Book Prize!). Looking out the window at the crazy roof of the old part of the house—we were in the newer part—anyway, the old part of the house that was originally a floating camp kitchen where high tides wash under the floor, pulled up onto land in the 1930s or 40s and shored up with logs, I said to one friend, “This is the world we hoped to find when we moved here in 1982.” A place my old friend Charles Lillard described so beautifully in “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.

We ate oysters collected earlier in the day from the beach (and there was a bucket full of them waiting for us to take home at the end of the evening), prawns, a delicious side of perfect salmon, and finished with lemon meringue pie. Champagne, and French chardonnay tasting of wet stones. A vase of snowdrops on the table set with my friend’s family Meissen, brought home from her mother’s house after her mother’s long life ended. Everything so beautiful and cherished.

I want to record these times because when we’re gone, will anyone remember that a house sat at the edge of a bay and 6 friends ate a feast pulled from its waters? That we talked of poetry and art (two of my friends are painters), of our children who are all making their way in the larger world but who all knew this house in their childhoods, swam off its generous rocks?

I wrote a novel about this bay after a series of dreams about a man in a small boat. A Man In A Distant Field is set in the salt meadows at the end of the bay where creeks find their way down to it from Mount Hallowell.

Past the watery thickets of eel-grass streaming over the surface of the bay, past the reeds where nests were concealed, past the tiny cove where Declan had stumbled upon Rose digging for clams with a stick shaped like a bird’s claw. There were sandy areas punctuated with oysters, the small Olympics that tasted sweet when you pried their shells open and drank them back like nectar, and there were rocks encrusted with the bigger Pacifics brought from Japan. The man who’d given Declan passage up the coast had told him that he was growing the big oysters on the beach in front of his homestead, hoping to market them to the steamships; he brought boxes of seed by boat from Vancouver, his young son responsible for keeping the boxes damp. “If it’s a high sea,” the man had said, “I tie a rope around his middle so he doesn’t wash overboard.” Declan imagined them coming up from the strait in wild seas on their boat with the boxes of oyster seed, the child tethered to the wheelhouse while the father steered a straight course for home. He heard the echoes of Odysseus resisting the song of the Sirens, lashed to the mast, while his men rowed past the pretty music. What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat heading north to Pender Harbour into the dark waters of Georgia Strait?

I think it might be the song we hear that draws us back to dinners on Oyster Bay, talking of poetry and children, and all around us, the scent of woodsmoke, of salt.

“Fine weather was promised, kind words were exchanged.”


I’d forgotten what day it is today until I entered the pool for my morning swim and realized that the lifeguards were playing Irish music. And oh, my plans to focus on one difficult area in the revisions I’m currently engaged in, those plans, where I’d do my slow backstroke and think of better ways to arrange the material, those plans were washed away in the lilt of a voice singing me back to the year I spent on the island in the photograph. That wasn’t my house, mine was on the other side of the quay, but in summer, on the few days when it was warm enough, I swam off the sand you can see. That was the beach where the currachs waited as bullocks were herded into the water to be swum across the water to Eyrephort strand where they’d be taken along the Sky Road to the cattle fair. Just at the top right, below the dark hill, is the graveyard where I often walked among the primroses and wild garlic, stopping to read a weather-worn inscription in stone.

After that year, I returned to Ireland twice but never to the island. By the second time I was there again, the islanders had been relocated to mainland houses. Their ancestors had been driven to the island by Cromwell, or that was the story I was told, and by the late 1970s, the cottages were either empty or else owned by people who’d bought them as holiday residences. In summer, the island was paradise, though often a damp one. In winter, the air was grey with fog and turf smoke, though if the wind was right, you could hear a tin whistle or fiddle too.

The second time I returned, it was to do some research for a book I was writing, a novel partly set near Delphi, in County Mayo, north of Killary Harbour. My older son came with me and we had a little car so we were able to explore areas I’d never seen. We also had maps that told us stories I’d never heard before and I remember how surprised I was to learn the earlier history of that part of Ireland, a history shaped by passage graves and holy wells and megaliths. When I came back to Canada, I finished my novel, and I also wrote some essays about the experience of learning another layer of history in a country dense with it. Here’s a little taste of one of those essays, published in Phantom Limb, though if you’re interested, you can read a slightly earlier version of it here.

We had the Ordnance Survey Map Discovery Series 37. It showed numerous sites which I had walked by twenty years ago without knowing they existed. A holy well for instance, in Miceal O’Gorham’s very field, fenced in rusted wire and woody fuchsia, a sign now asking that no one enter because of Foot and Mouth Disease. I half-wanted to knock on Miceal’s door to say, Do you remember me and might we walk on your field? but something kept me from doing it. He had been a romantic figure to encounter on the road, a man with property, a wild Heathcliff profile, an ailing mother kept in a room off the kitchen. A handsome man, cagey in his dealings with cattle and horses, with a reputation for violence, a way of looking at women which disarmed them and I suspect disrobed one or two. So we walked up a hill opposite instead where, by following the contours of the map which remarkably matched the way the hill rose, we found a megalithic tomb facing away from the sea. Wind blew and birds trilled, and we sat on the rocks in front of the tomb where inside lay the bones of someone buried four thousand years earlier, a hip pierced with an arrow-tip, a pin dropped from a cloak long since disintegrated lying alongside. I lost my shoe in the bog as we returned to the car, and everywhere there was bog bean, marsh marigolds, the finished blooms of lady’s smock. When I woke the next morning, I knew immediately where I was, the sound of the town waking as familiar as my own household. My remaining muddy shoe, rinsed in the little sink in our bathroom, hung out the window. Desmond, with a tea-towel wrapped about his middle, brought us our breakfast and a steaming silver-plated coffee pot. Fine weather was promised, kind words were exchanged.
             — from “Well”

So that’s where I ended up while swimming, the music taking me back, back, and even now, remembering, I can smell the turf smoke, feel the rough cut of words in stone against my fingers. Gone to God, remembered on earth. For thine is the kingdom.