swimming in the rain

swimming in the rain

I woke in the night to hear rain, one of the loveliest sounds after a run of hot dry weeks. In the dark room, I listened to the percussive tap on our blue metal roof, thinking of the trees frogs by the front door—at one point last week, we counted 6—and the water barrels filling and everything drinking in rain with gratitude. When I came downstairs this morning, my house smelled fresh and cool from windows left open. We usually swim at 8:30 to avoid other people at the little beach area but it wasn’t until 10 that I walked into the water, in mist, to do my laps, the far shore soft green. If I was writing fiction, I’d stitch in the sound of the loons we heard yesterday during our swim, stitch in the kingfishers diving. But it was quiet, apart from the two young guys from Australia who came down to swim too.

At this point in the pandemic, I’m taking stock. Not of the cupboards or the freezer but something more intangible. Have I accomplished anything with all this time, the weeks and months of quiet? Should I have accomplished more? At the very beginning, when we were reluctant to venture out at all, I completed a novella begun last summer. I wrote the final pages—a party at the end of the narrator’s life, with friends and family gathered to feast and listen to a cello, an oud—and felt I was somehow commemorating a time and a place I might never know again in the same way. I thought I’d finished an essay collection but then realized that one long-ish essay didn’t work. It wasn’t until I began something new, an essay inspired by a phrase that came to me out of thin air, that I realized why the other essay didn’t work. So I removed it from the manuscript and went to work on the new piece which I think finishes the collection in the right way. What I learned writing the new essay was how to find meaning on old maps and how a pandemic can teach us where to look for the stories that reveal who we are.

While I was swimming this morning, swimming being my own personal form of meditation when the water is right and I can tune out everything else, I had a moment of panic. What now? What now? It seems that we will go in much the same way for months, maybe years. I feel safer doing my errands on a weekly basis, my stash of masks and sanitizer close at hand, and having my Ottawa family here last week, joined for a few days by my daughter, made me feel that social events might just happen again, carefully, and outdoors for the foreseeable future. On Sunday we’re driving to Lac Le Jeune to link up with our Edmonton family.

What now? These times ask that we use our abilities, I think, because the future is unpredictable. Maybe it always is but it’s never felt so precarious to me as it does now. We may not have the time we think we have, the future we think we deserve. As I swam this morning, I was trying to imagine what I might do next. I’ve always loved this advice from Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.

I don’t think I’ve forgotten to have a creative life but I wonder if I’ve done enough, asked enough of myself in the face of this world I’ve both cherished and not done enough to care for. Have any of us? I don’t want to change direction but I want to pay more attention to where I’m going and what it takes to travel with care and love.

It’s not even mid-August but the air has a little thread of autumn running through it. On the surface of the lake this morning, leaves blown from the hardhack, shining willow, the alders near the shore. Now that we know what early spring and summer are like in a state of lock-down, we have the fall and winter to look forward to. I’m hoping for a phrase to wake me one of these mornings, to lead me into its territory so I know how to travel safe in the months to come.

At the edge of heaven, tatters of autumn
Cloud. After ten thousand miles of clear
Lovely morning, the west wind arrives. Here,
Long rains haven’t slowed farmers. Frontier
Willows air thin kingfisher colors, and
Red fruit flecks mountain pears. As a flute’s
Mongol song drifts from a tower, one
Goose climbs clear through vacant skies.
                           –Du Fu

to all of us

wedding day0001

When I woke this morning, the first thing I thought was, This is my parents’ 70th anniversary. Is, not was. They’ve been dead for 10 years (my mum) and 11 years (my dad) but they’re still everywhere in my life. I remember calling my mother on this day 10 years ago, just a couple of months before she died (though none of us knew it would be that soon), and she said, Do you know what day it is? And I did. I knew she’d be feeling particularly sad and I called her to commiserate. From my perspective, theirs was a marriage that was uneven in many ways. My mum was the energy source. She made arrangements, remembered birthdays, cleaned the house, did the laundry, the cooking, and was always upbeat and cheerful. She needed to be because my father was gloomy, taciturn, and in his later years, obsessed with one relationship in his family that had gone sour. The things he’d always liked to do no longer pleased him. He’d been an avid fisherman but couldn’t imagine a new way of doing it once he wasn’t able to pack up his camper, put his inflatable boat on top, and head to one of the lakes he loved. I remember we offered to take my parents on a weekend away from Victoria after they’d sold their house and their camper and were finding apartment living a bit desolate. One of the places we went to as children, I suggested. A lake on Salt Spring Island! You could fish from the dock. We could put a chair out for you. Why bother, he muttered, and wouldn’t consider it, or any other possibility. At the end of his life, he wanted to leave his hospital bed and reconcile with the person who wasn’t there. Those at his bedside were invisible.

But there was a time my parents were young and in love, when my mother glowed with happiness, and this is how I want to remember them today. A marriage is an interesting ecology unto itself. Knowing the elements, the organisms involved, is no guarantee of understanding its complex system. I know they loved each other and they loved the four children they produced together. The symbol for a 70th anniversary is platinum. It’s strong and doesn’t tarnish. Traditional gift is a bouquet of flowers. (I can do that.) Colour is sky blue. If they were alive, I’d open sparkling wine under today’s clear sky, pour them a glass, and toast the years. And maybe that’s what I’ll do anyway. Many happy years ahead, to all of us, and all of us, and all of us, with love.

us

a running brush

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I began this blog nine and a half years ago. I remember thinking at the time it was such a self-indulgent thing to do but I also remember how much I loved discovering that the things I was thinking about could be written down in a semi-public form and given a place in the (small) world of virtual space. (Of course I know that virtual space is enormous but literary-ish blogs? That reduces the field considerably.) I didn’t need to think of what I was writing as publishable or formal. It was hugely liberating and continues to be.

I write these posts when I feel I have something I want to share, or puzzle through, or call attention to in other ways. Over the years I’ve learned to embed videos, to edit (somewhat) photos, and even to change the template of my website (after complaints from readers who said the white text on black space was too difficult to read).

But what exactly are these entries? Some of them have found their way into essays I’ve written. They served as spring-boards, I guess you could say. Some of them are extracts from works-in-progress. Over nine and half years, I’ve written a lot. I remember being asked about a possible manuscript in 2015 and I thought how I’d really like to put together a book about the year I was 60: 2015-1016. So much happened that year. I went through all the entries and drew out a couple of strands, edited them lightly, and sent the manuscript off, along with another manuscript of essays. The publisher (Mother Tongue Publishing, to whom I am eternally grateful) chose the manuscript of essays that became Euclid’s Orchard. It turns out that another writer published a book that year about being 60 and although mine would have been the antithesis of his, maybe there’s not room for two.

So. I have all these entries, some of them small essays in themselves. Personal essays. Some of them are fragments. But in my mind, in the mind that draws me to sit at my desk to shape and write down my thinking, my dreams, my hopes, I intuit that these are all part of a whole. Today I was reading the new Harper’s and was intrigued by an essay by Kadijah Queen called “False Dawn”. It’s a series of brief passages and responses to them, all of them seeming to arise from the author’s experiences of living through the current pandemic. They are personal, often lyrical, and some of them find their way to others in a slightly circuitous fashion. The piece is called a zuihitsu, a term I’ve never heard before, but now that I know it, I find myself thinking that my blog posts fit this almost perfectly. It’s a Japanese essay form, meaning “a running brush”, and it’s a miscellany, a catch-all in a way, of loosely connected responses to the life and surroundings of the writer. Think of Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. I love the sense that there is no premeditated structure. If you’ve been reading my blog for any time at all, you’ve figured out that I don’t plan. I find my way through. I feel my way. To me this has always been the way I’ve worked but now that I’m aging and now that the publishing climate is so fierce about structure and outlines and a crisp narrative arc, I’ve been feeling kind of isolated. I write the way I write in order to find things out, to circle them, to praise them, to tease out their meanings, and I don’t expect I’ll change. So to discover a form that is already (essentially) the one I use almost daily is a gift. I may try to adapt some of the work I’ve written to echo the zuihitsu I’ve read today — not the works themselves but the open fragmentary form. Or maybe I won’t. But it’s lovely to know that I’m not alone in what I do.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, also Japanese, is the art of kintsugi, of repairing ceramics with tree-sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold. The word means (I think) precious scars. The idea of keeping something alive, something beautiful and cherished, something practical, is hugely attractive to me. I don’t make ceramics but I do use a version of this (in a way) with quilts. The other night a friend of my son’s came for dinner with us. We were talking under the vines and she brought up kintsugi, saying in a way she felt it was how she wanted to approach some memoir writing she hoped to do. Oh, yes, I told her. It’s a perfect way to think about the broken fragments of our lives, made stronger and even more beautiful by the gold-dusted repairs.

So I write my small essays, I hope for a way to seam them together in their cracked and broken utility. I think of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:

There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

I think of the cracks in my own skeleture, the tailbone fractured on an icy sidewalk in Edmonton, the rib cracked when I fell on a post one winter day a decade ago, my pelvis broken at the pubis when my horse fell on me 50 years ago, the footbone broken in early June when I slammed it against an open cupboard door. Think of the damage within my own body, seamed with gold, the light seeping in. Think of the running brush easing each fragment into something lovely and meaningful. Yes, repetitions, yes, the seasons, the wind, the births and deaths, the passing of time. And the constants, the moon I look out at each night from my bed in the woods between two lakes, the stars in their own loneliness.

At any time and in any place I find moonlight very moving.

Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book

postcard, the morning swim

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As I swam this morning, I was remembering my dream, a bough of young owls ready to leave—the owls we have listened to all summer?—and my children were also young, in their small bathing suits, standing under the boughs. This is an important moment, I told them. The owls are leaving their parents to make their way in the world. When I woke, I held the dream close, each detail—the wing feathers of the barred owls, the bright suits, the skinny tanned legs of my sons and daughter—so clear that I knew I would never forget. I swam, I remembered, and the water also held the details of the last two weeks: two small boys with buckets at the edge, their father under the surface, the rattle of kingfishers interrupted at their breakfast. Owls and water and the sound of my grandsons racing to tell me about the frogs, the bobcat they saw, the lizard the cat brought to the patio that we coaxed him to release to the freedom of the woodpile. When the owls flew from their bough into the dusk, the children lost interest, wanted to return to their game in the grass by the garden, more than 30 years ago, though the owls were the ones we heard this summer, one in the arbutus tree last week, calling as we dreamed in our own bed.

To convince ourselves that they are really ours, we must reinhabit these dreams.

–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

new frogs

new frog

It’s the last day of their visit. We count tree frogs—5 or 6 in the area out our front door, on leaves, on ivy, huddled under the petals of a Casablanca lily. There was no spawn in the old bathtub turned into a pool but we’ve decided there must be a depression under the house where these ones grew this summer. (There are some damp areas and perhaps water collected over the winter.)

This is a good place to be a child. I keep overhearing my son talking to his older son and I am taken back nearly 40 years to similar conversations. Conversations arising from books read (including Charlotte’s Web), songs sung. An hour ago:

A: Look, Daddy, a beautiful spider web! But there’s no writing.
F: Maybe that spider can’t write.
A: Maybe it just doesn’t have a creature to save. It can write but it doesn’t need to.

climbing

I heard them down in the bush, looking for a good cedar for A. to climb while his little brother naps. But as our climate changes, many of the younger cedars near the house are dying. The big ones are healthy and established but there are no low limbs for a boy to swing on. Still, I heard them talking, anticipating a walk to Francis Point and hopefully (if the tide is right) a last plunge in the sea before we have supper at the local pub. A small bowl has been set on a low table for the frogs, a few stones arranged in it for basking, and water carefully poured in by a boy kneeling on the table, his body so like his father’s at that age that I have to turn away. Tiny frogs climb the ivy leaves and we hope they’ll find their water.

Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts

Tree frogs
are ignoring their ladders

—from W.G. Sebald’s “Barometer Reading”

Where do the years go? Somewhere beautiful and green, scented with cedar drying in summer heat, spangled with sunlight.

me too

 

when the house is quiet…

orca

…some of us are working on our books. I’m taking advantage of my historian-son to improve the endnote citations for my essay collection. (Having simply kept endnotes of materials used with little notes to self saying, “Fix this later”, I now need to make sure the citations are correct.) A., who is 4, is making a book of all the creatures he has seen on his two-week visit to us. The orca, first a single animal, then a mother and calf, then a pod, was yesterday, in Powell River, when we went for a beach trip. He also saw seals (that page is in progress as I type), otters, a blue heron, starfish, and assorted giant insects at Gibsons Beach, north of Wildwood. Luckily his father found a field guide to seashells at the second book store so the bucket of shells he collected there can be identified with some accuracy because he is a details boy. I am looking forward to the hares, the northern alligator lizard, the tree frog, and oh, particularly the young bobcat that sprang from the woods and ran in front of the car as a group headed down the driveway to the lake.

write this down, I am saying to myself

without us

I woke an hour ago and thought about the past week, how full the days have been. Every morning we swim, as we have since late May, and most mornings the little boys come down with their dad to play in the sand as we plunge into the deep water green with sunlight. We sit on the upper deck among the sweet peas and tomato plants while the boys play on the grass below. We make the meals I love to set out on the table under the vines, the ones I thought about this past winter and spring when our life was reduced to the house, the garden, the two of us talking and reading by the fire. On a walk yesterday (because now it’s nearly 3 a.m.) we found chanterelles on the edge of the path and brought them home in my hat for Grandad to have with an egg for breakfast tomorrow, which is now today. The boys were watching for the barred owl they’d seen the previous day, swooping from one tree to another by the trail to Sakinaw Lake. It’s no wonder they saw an owl. The woods are full of them these late July nights. Maybe it’s what woke me an hour ago. Maybe it was starlight. Or the realization that there was still a glass with a little wine out on the table under the vines and that I didn’t want the bear who’s been around to find it. That’s the last thing we need.

The table looked strange without us, expectant—the bowl of sweet peas, the empty wine bottle (Desert Hills 2013 Mirage, perfect with the prime rib and little roasted fingerling potatoes Eddy helped me dig in the afternoon), two of the faux Murano glasses left out with the napkins, one of them with a few mouthfuls of wine, undrinkable now because of flies. I sat for a few minutes, listening. What did I hope to hear? All winter and spring I thought of my family, my immediate one and also the one I came from, those long dead and stretching back in time so far I can’t keep track. I got up on those winter nights too and sat in the dark, listening to coyotes. I knew there was a message in their calling, the female keeping track of her mate as he hunted our woods, their own offspring grown and spread out in the world, another generation familiar with the winter sky, the sunrises over Mount Hallowell, the long weeks of rain.

Sometimes it’s so quiet I can hear myself think. I can hear the shimmer of ideas forming as I sit at the empty table, the beginning of an essay tugging at my mind, hazy with starlight and lack of sleep. Write this down, I am saying to myself. Write it down in all its detail—the no-see-ums stinging your bare shoulders, that rustle below the deck, the empty glass and the other one, with its wine and flies, its millefiore lovely under the single light you’ve turned on in the night, the scent of sweet peas unexpected as you brush crumbs from the table, the little huddle of moths around the lamp.

“We can almost smell the Cheremosh River.”

cupani

The kitchen was fragrant with dill and scallions. We were making varenyky, based on recipes from Olia Hercules’s wonderful Mamushka, but adapted to what we had available to us. We had dry curd cheese and cream cheese, potatoes, thick-cut bacon, and frozen sweet dark cherries. We had savoy cabbage to braise for a side dish, and beets with their tops. Manon and I stuffed the dough and pinched the triangles closed, 8 cookie sheets of them, and those rested for a few hours on top of the freezer while the beets were roasted for salad, and the cabbage cut into thin slivers with apples and shallots. John set the table outside, under the grapes and wisteria, and there were bottles of Bricker cider, Prosecco chilled in the cooler, and a gooseberry galette for dessert.

I grew up with aunts and a grandmother who made delicious pedaha–what we called pierogi. My grandmother made fresh cheese to stuff them with and she also used sweet golden plums for a dessert version. We ate this food when we visited Edmonton in summer. I remember lying in grass and hearing the women make the pedaha together in the kitchen, windows open for any breeze that might find its way into the hot room. In my kitchen with Manon, with the sound of the little boys making a mural of our patio with sidewalk chalk, I knew what the women must have felt in those days: a sense of familial history. They were doing what they’d been taught to do, anticipating appetites and the prospect of long meals on summer evenings with far-flung family returned for a visit.

In Ukraine last September, I kept seeing versions of families that might have been my own. I even met some members of the family that stayed in Ivankivtsi. And I knew that those who were eating under vines as we passed their farm on our way to our hotel above Kosiv were remembered by others living elsewhere.  We could be them. We are sometimes the couple with the apple basket, sometimes the children asking to return. Sometimes we are all together at a table and the food we eat is the food I dreamed about as a child, dreamed of its creation. Driving from B.C. to Edmonton, I could already smell the dill and the sharp onions being sliced in the capable hands of the women.

At each farm, someone is picking apples, by ladder, by filling a bucket with windfalls. A man, a woman with a child, a couple, with a basket between them. Stooks stand in the fields. Horses graze, dogs sleep as though dead in the dry grass. There are pumpkins still in the gardens, heaps of watermelons, horseradish leaves lush by the houses. At the farm where we turn to climb the road to Sokilske, an old table is balanced under a pear tree and a family is seated around it. The man raises his glass. A horse lifts its head as our wheels spin briefly, gaining traction for the steep rise. We can almost smell the Cheremosh River. And listenthere are chickadees in the sunflowers. Chickens scatter at the side of the road.

–from “Museum of the Multitude Village”, an essay from an unpublished collection.

quotidian

overcast

There have been kingfishers at the lake when we go down for our morning swim. They fly from low branch to low branch. I suspect we’ve interrupted their breakfast. This morning, in grey air, a single crayfish claw on a rock.

From her roost the water hen stretched out
her purple-green sleek neck,
the kingfisher’s quick glance
shook droplets from his crown,
and I thought love would always be
that brilliant on the wing and wild.

–Ibykos, 6th c. BCE, trans. Brooks Haxton

the museum opened…

…around 2 p.m. and the curator, age 4, led us in the front door, past the archaeopteryx cast on the side of the house (our own welcome sign)

archaeopteryx

to the main display. Earlier I’d been asked to be the copyist, making little notes of information dictated to me to accompany the curator’s drawings of his favourite objects in our house. His father found a box of things from his own childhood and so a few fossils from that were included.

museum1

Some bones from windowsills, teeth from the elk skull in the garden (a sort of presiding spirit, in the nature of a scare crow), a couple jaws from my desk

museum2

and an antler (also from my desk). The curator was willing to have his photograph taken.

curator1

The museum will close shortly and the curator will go with his little brother for a swim.