firelight

firelight

Because John recently had bilateral hip surgery, we’ve been sleeping downstairs since returning from Vancouver on Saturday. This means the couches in the living room area, open to the kitchen one step lower. John needs a bed at a certain height because he can’t bend, We had a foam mattress made to fit on one of our couches, a broad cedar bench, and this works pretty well, although it’s narrow. Our other couch is leather and very comfortable– to sit on; it turns out to be a little too soft for a good night’s rest. Last night we tried one of the big beds in the back of the house but it didn’t provide the right support for the tender new hips so we returned to our couches around midnight. I stoked the fire and if there was a nice thing about the whole night, it was looking from my own narrow bed to see the firelight flickering in the kitchen just beyond us. I thought I’d write about firelight today, its beauty and its comfort. But then when we got up, John said that he thought we should go down to the hospital because he’d actually been having an accelerated pulse rate ever since we got home on Saturday and he thought he’d better not leave it any longer. So we headed to the hospital, a 45 minute drive down the winding Coast highway, and he was whisked into Emergency for a few hours of tests. I’ve only just arrived home (it’s nearly 5), alone, because our doctor felt that John would be better off in the hospital for a day or two while they worked out an effective way to deal with his heart.

The fire was cold and almost the first thing I did was to bring in wood. And now it’s blazing again, bright and hopeful, and I’ll sit by it with a glass of wine and think about how these days might unfold. Our doctor thinks it’s just a matter of tweaking medications and I think she’s probably right. While John was at the UBC Hospital, a few important levels were out of whack as a result of the surgery. Our couches look a little forlorn, though the cat has found John’s place and has curled up right where his feet would be. Firelight is firelight is firelight. The whole room is warm and one chair is empty. For now. I’m reading poetry, the best charm I know against the dark.

You cannot put a Fire out—
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan—
Upon the slowest Night—

You cannot fold a Flood—
And put it in a Drawer—
Because the Winds would find it out—
And tell your Cedar Floor—

             –Emily Dickinson

“stars around the beautiful moon”

evening visitors

Yesterday we left our suite at UBC just about 10 a.m. and arrived home around 4:00. There was a brief moment when I had difficulty getting John into the car when I wondered if we were crazy to attempt to drive home but then he was buckled in, a blanket wrapped around him, all our stuff loaded into the back, and we were on our way across Vancouver to the ferry. I drove us home with more tension in my neck and shoulders than I think I’d ever experienced before but things I was worried about didn’t materialize. The things I’d been awake most of the night thinking about so that when morning came, I was dizzy with tiredness. But also eager to try to move into the new chapter. Before we left for Vancouver 10 days ago, I’d set up a bed for John on one of our couches, a cedar-framed wide bench with a linen-covered foam base for which we’d had an additional foam mattress cut and covered to bring the couch to the required height for people who are recuperating from hip replacement surgery. It was wonderful to drive up our long driveway to see our house waiting at the top. What was less wonderful was the sight of the wooden bin where we keep the garbage cans dragged out and the cans themselves chewed up a bit. These are the cans where we put stuff that shouldn’t attract bears. Old wire, scraps of stuff from the printshop: that sort of thing, certainly nothing edible. Tell that to the bear. He’d also upended one of the compost boxes but thankfully it wasn’t broken.

Into the house where I made a good fire and brought in the chair with the special foam cushion and we sat there, grateful to be home. Our neighbour phoned to say she was going to leave something on our deck– our neighbour who confessed she’d already put the garbage back after a bear visit earlier in the week, sigh– and the something was a carton of her delicious squash and apple soup, a pan of cheese biscuits, and a jar of the most beautiful dahlias. There are angels among us, even in this frightening world.

I slept on the other couch so I could be near if John needed me in the night. But he got up on his own and I heard him go down to the bathroom and when we woke, it was 6:30 a.m. I’d dreamed I’d taken Anne Carson to Egmont to show her around, though why Anne Carson would want to hang out with me in Egmont is beyond me, and we watched two grizzly bears on the opposite side of the inlet entering the water to swim across to where we were standing. To my surprise, Anne didn’t recite Sappho.

When I woke and waited for John to return to his narrow bed in the night, I watched the moon out the big window at the end of the room. A waxing gibbous moon moving towards its blue moon state next Saturday. The sky was pricked with stars. Maybe Anne was too busy watching the grizzlies swimming towards us to remember Fragment 34 but I’m sure this was the poem she’d have remembered if she’d been in our house last night:

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
              on the earth

    silvery

redux: an autumn meditation, after Du Fu

Note: this was from October, 2018. Tomorrow we’ll head home after ten days in Vancouver where John had a bilateral hip replacement and sustained nerve damage to his right foot. I think we’ll both be relieved to be in our own territory again, among the light and the plants.

sitting duck

It’s autumn again, the year turning as the planet turns, as the ocean at Long Beach last week eased into shore and then retreated, the silver of it in morning light as lovely as anything I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been moving plants into the sun-room for winter. I always think this will take, oh, half an hour but of course the plants need to be pruned back, tidied, dead leaves shaken into a bucket. Some of them are the parents or offspring of things I’ve tended for more than 30 years. The jade plants, the scented geraniums, some succulents brought for me as Mother’s Day gifts at the local swap meet, a Meyer lemon I bought on a whim in 1987 and often have enough fruit from for marmalade. 3 huge epiphyllum cacti that bloom year round and draw the hummingbirds in summer when we hang them from the overhead beams of our deck pergola to shelter among the grape leaves and wisteria.

I came in to read Du Fu, his Autumn Meditations. Always the precise observation and always the sadness for friends gone, the summer only a memory, the sound of geese flying south.

Jade frost bites the maple trees
and Wu Mountain and Wu Gorge breathe out dark fear

as river waves rise up to the sky
and dark wind-clouds touch ground by a frontier fortress.

The chrysanthemums have twice bloomed tears of other days,
When I moor my lonely boat my heart longs for my old garden.

The need for winter clothes hurries scissors and bamboo rulers.
White Emperor City looms over the rushed sound of clothes beaten at dusk.

Yesterday I put my summer clothes away, lavender tucked into pockets. When John got up to make the fire and coffee, I heard him wonder aloud at the light over the patio, then his chuckle as he realized it was the wisteria leaves turned gold. It happened, as these things happen, as life happens, almost overnight. And every year we are startled by the unexpectedness of the usual. This morning, I thought, oh, I must ask my mother about something, and then realized, yikes, she’s dead. Has been for 8 years next month. But wasn’t only a year or two ago my parents joined us at Long Beach and sat on logs looking out to sea while our children turned cartwheels in the sand? One of the succulents I brought in was a Christmas cactus grown from a tiny slip from John’s mother. This year it’s loaded with buds.

green

As Du Fu noted, “Immortal companions share a boat, move on in the evening.” The plants come in and I find room for them under windows from a house built before the First World War, many of the panes still with their original wavery glass. That’s why my sight was blurry when I came downstairs. I’m sure of it.

“Who can I talk with at night”

written in exile

When I arrived in John’s room this afternoon, hoping to be present when the physiotherapist took him to climb stairs and then descend to the little rhyme we used this morning on the pretend stairs in the big room at the end of the hall–abc, able foot, bad foot, crutch; cba, crutch, bad foot, able foot— anyway, when I arrived in his room, he wasn’t there. His day nurse said he was on a different floor for an echo-cardiogram, required because of some irregularities in his heart beat. I sat in the big chair by the window, the soft needles of the pine outside almost brushing the glass, and read the preface to the book I brought him yesterday as an anniversary present: Written in Exile: the Poetry of Liu Tsung-yuan.

Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819) was considered one of the finest prose writers of the T’ang dynasty. Red Pine– the name Bill Porter uses for his translation work–was less familiar with his poetry and was surprised to discover his superb lyricism, evident in the work he gathered together in Written in Exile. I could have spent the afternoon reading not just the elegant and fascinating preface but the poems. Yesterday John showed me one about a one-legged crow. And then this, “River Snow”:

A thousand mountains and not a bird flying
ten thousand paths and not a single footprint
an old man in his raincoat in a solitary boat
fishes alone in the freezing river snow

I could have spent the afternoon reading but instead I washed my husband’s body while he braced himself on his walker, helped him back into his bed, arranged the soft flannel sheet over his legs. I want to be useful during this period and there will be time enough for poetry once we’re home and he’s healing. Looking ahead, I can almost see us by our winter fire, reading of one-legged crows and a thousand mountains.

Who can I talk with at night
if not these texts on bamboo and silk

“So let the battered old willow/thrash against the windowpanes”

jp-tk

Forty-one years ago John and I were married late morning in a room overlooking the sea in Sidney, on Saanich Peninsula. Our parents, my brothers, John’s sister, their partners, and John’s aunt and uncle were present. Friends came later, after lunch, for champagne and nice food. Who knew what the years would bring?

They brought everything. A house we built ourselves, 3 children, books we wrote and books we read, together and apart, a garden, friendships, some travel, lots of happiness and also some sorrow. In sickness and in health the old wedding vows asked you to promise and although that wasn’t part of our own ceremony, it’s been true. There’s been far more health than sickness, thank goodness, but you don’t get to choose.

This morning I’m in my small suite near the UBC Hospital where John is recovering from bilateral hip surgery. That’s the easy part, though having watched him take a few tentative steps on a walker, assisted by a physiotherapist, I know it’s not easy. The more difficult path ahead will be one he’ll have to walk with a paralyzed foot, the result of damage to his sciatic nerve during surgery. We are hopeful that the nerve will regenerate. The process takes 2 years and it’s not inevitable that it will be complete and successful. But we will continue to be hopeful and do what we need to do.

I think of Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful poem, “Touch Me”, the opening lines our lines:

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.

Yesterday was warm, like summer, and in the night I kept waking to hear wind and rain against my window. We’ve celebrated our anniversary in many different places–Cox Bay, near Tofino, Vienna, Paris, a motel in Merritt–but mostly at home where we make a special meal and open a bottle of spectacular wine. This is the first time I’ll walk to a hospital with pastries and a book of Chinese poetry to wish my beloved another year of happiness. A few more days in the surgical ward, then the physiotherapist will help John into our car and we’ll drive home for the next chapter of this story.

So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.

Yes, let the timbers creak. They’re strong. We know that because we built the house ourselves

It’s not silence I’m afraid of

sunday morning, quilting

Because John is in hospital and visiting hours are limited, I am spending a fair bit of time in my rooms nearby. It’s very quiet here. I brought the wonderful Topeka School to read (Ben Lerner’s new novel) and I also brought two quilts to work on. Reading is best at bedtime, to sink into Topeka, Kansas, and the lives of the protagonist Adam and his parents; and quilting is good by the window in the afternoons when the weight of what’s to come in the next few months is heavy, not just in a metaphorical way but in my limbs, my thinking. I anticipate that John will make a very good recovery from his bilateral hip replacement surgery. It’s the unexpected thing that presents uncertainty. Will he regain the use of his right foot or will he have to learn a whole new way of moving in the world, compensating at every step for the loss of feeling, the damage to his nerve. Whatever happens we will do our best. When it’s light out, the trees brilliant gold and deep orange, the house finches busy at the work of opening maple seeds, I am ready for anything. But when the weight settles, I pick up my quilt and stitch free-hand spirals into the sashing between the log-cabin blocks. The process of moving out from the centre and then letting the thread find its way out into the open space is calming, in the way I suspect meditation might be. My meditations are of the practical sort though; they always have been. Kneading dough, weeding, watering tomatoes and easing their unruly stems around strings leading them upwards. So I’ll stitch and hope that the threads will take me–us–in the direction we need to go now. Sure-footed or not.

 

Why are you so afraid of silence,
silence is the root of everything.
If you spiral into its void,
a hundred voices will thunder
messages you long to hear.
                      –Rumi

“…feasts to the whole world.”

feast dishes

Yesterday I spent part of the morning at the Museum of Anthropology. (I’m staying nearby while John recovers from major surgery at UBC Hospital.) I didn’t want to be outside in the rain but inside, I was deep in the weather, ceremony, beautiful cosmology of the Indigenous people of the Northwest Coast. The rain pattered on the roof while the scent of cedar filled the Great Hall. It felt like a privilege, it was a privilege, but it made me profoundly sad.  One glass case contained many sacred objects with a note saying that in the villages they’d come from, they’d have been put carefully away between use.

It was the feast dishes I spent the most time with. They reminded me that in this time we’re living through, we’re asked not to gather in groups, not to serve food for others to share, and I wondered when we would be able to feast together again. To prepare food to eat in community, in celebration of the things that ask us to commemorate them together. The feast itself as living symbol, our dishes the carriers of our fellowship.

And I thought, as I read a Kwakwaka‘wakw potlatch song recorded in 1895 by George Hunt and Franz Boaz, that we have corrupted the notion of power. Instead of adding zeros to sums beyond my wildest imaginings, net worth in the billions and (even) trillions of dollars, the richest among us could be demonstrating their wealth by sharing food:

Too great is, what you are doing, our chief. Who equals our chief! He is giving feasts to the whole world.

a charm, a trembling

morning tree

The last time we were in Paris, maybe 8 years ago, we went to the Musée des arts et métiers, a wonderful collection of scientific and technological objects, including Foucault’s pendulum, timepieces and navigational devices through history, binoculars from 1681, early planes, calculators, even a maquette for the statue of Liberty. We spent ages looking a case of artificial hips, an exhibit detailing their development from an early model of ivory, invented by one Themistocles Gluck in 1891, to the more contemporary versions made of metals and ceramics. Imagine having one of those in your body! Who said it? Me? John? I remember we touched our own hips tenderly and went on to the next exhibit room.

Yesterday John had both his hips replaced at the UBC Hospital. This has been in the works for some time. For the past 5 years he’s had some mobility issues and realized he’d need at least one hip replaced. He actually saw the surgeon nearly a year ago, after a year’s wait (because he asked friends who’d had joint replacements who they felt was the best surgeon and one name kept being repeated and it turns out he had a long waiting list….). Last November the surgeon looked at recent x-rays, realized both hips had deteriorated, and casually said, Let’s do them both at the same time. Easy peasy. John was told it would happen in spring but then COVID-19 meant that elective surgeries were cancelled. A month ago, his was rescheduled.

I visited him yesterday afternoon. He was cheerful, hungry, and ready to do whatever he needed to do to strengthen his legs and new hips so we can return to the long walks up the mountain that formed such an important part of our lives. He’ll be in hospital for 4 or 5 more days and I’m staying nearby on campus so I can walk back and forth to see him. We were both students at UBC in the last century, John earlier than me, in the 1960s. I did most of an MFA here after Forrest’s birth in the early 1980s, driving across town from North Vancouver for seminars and rushing home to nurse my baby. I didn’t ever learn to find my way around the campus. I always felt hurried. Harried. We were building a house, we were learning to print on the big old Chandler and Price platen press we’d recently acquired, and I wasn’t writing much. Eventually I realized that it wasn’t a good use of my time to race across the Lions Gate Bridge two or three times a week in order to complete a degree, particularly not when I knew by the second spring that I was going to have another baby. What I remember is that I always parked in the Museum of Anthropology lot because I could put money in the meter and get 2 hours of parking which was just about enough if I raced back to the car as soon as my seminar ended. I knew the quickest way there and back. I’ve bought a ticket online to the Museum for later this morning, hoping that it’s still as lovely as ever. I expect it will be–I’ve been back several times over the years. Almost nothing else seems the same. It’s like a city here, with residences everywhere, building projects happening on every corner, though there are not many people on the sidewalks because of course classes are online. Huge empty buses passed me as I walked back from the hospital yesterday. I looked out the window of the suite where I am staying and tried to figure out which direction I facing. There were house finches in the maples, many of them, and I wished I had my trusty An Exaltation of Larks at hand to determine what the collective noun for finches might be. I’ve just looked online and there are three: a charm, a trembling, a trimming. I’ll keep these in mind to tell John because they are also words for a man who is waking this morning with new hips.

This morning it’s still too dark for finches. I looked out the window and there’s someone walking on the dark trail with a flashlight. I recognize her tentative step. It might be myself, nearly 40 years later, trying to find my way.

I am out with lanterns, looking for myself. (Emily Dickinson, letter to Mrs. J.G. Holland, January 20, 1856)

“five suns from a flying heaven”: Thanksgivings 1991 and 2020

the last plate

1.

“I found the yellow plates on the day before Thanksgiving, 1991. We’d gone by boat down the length of Sakinaw Lake, tying up to some logs at the western end. From there, a boggy path leads through wild mint and arums to a small estuary. High cliffs on either side of the bay give the place a protected hidden feeling; you could be at a creek mouth at the edge of the world.”

2.

“Wading across the rising creek, I suddenly spotted an unusually large shell on the bottom, partly obscured by eelgrass. Curious, I lifted it out and put it in my bucket among the frilly oysters; it rang against the side of the galvanized bucket like a bell.

[…]

Remembering my strange disc, I took it out of the bucket and showed the others. Holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that, we could tell it was a plate.”

3.

“A rough shelf hung partly off one wall and on the shelf were four dusty yellow plates, the only things in the shack that were unbroken. They were waiting, as the first plate waited, in a dark corner, not underwater, but fallen the same, five suns from a flying heaven.”

4.

“Thanksgiving, 1991. We ate the oysters broiled in their own juices with lemon over top, clams stewed with garlic and garden tomatoes, turkey and all the classical trimmings, served on the yellow plates. We each said a grace before eating, something to be thankful for–food, family, the peace of the big trees around us, and the weather bringing rain, wind, the brilliance of sunlight in October, sometimes streaming from the great sun overhead and sometimes hidden in creekbeds, shacks, flawed under dust and barnacles, waiting to be found and praised.”

5.

A small chicken defrosts in the kitchen. Squash, a savoy cabbage, blue potatoes grown from a couple brought home from Ottawa last year, apple and blackberry compotes topped with pastry fish. I am thankful for what I have but I am also wistful for feasts at the pine table, every chair filled, the silver polished and gleaming, the glasses at every place. 4 of the yellow plates broke and were thrown out but I bring the last one, chipped and cracked, down from the sunroom where it serves as a plant saucer. Let it hold an empty oyster shell, two squashes, the memory of that day 19 years ago when we went to a beach on the edge of the world, a family intact, “oysters blanketed with seaweed, the clams opening and closing in the cold water.”

empty

Note: the first four passages are taken from “Yellow Plates”, publishing in Red Laredo Boots, New Star Books, 1996. It’s out of print but if you are interested in a copy–it’s a collection of essays–I have a few copies available for sale.

“We look at the world once, in childhood.” (Louise Glück)

two roses

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am always thinking about time and memory. Memory and time. I think of them when I wake at night, trying to find words for ideas that come to me out of the darkness, like brief starlight. The two of them are entwined, each embracing and holding the other. When my children were born, I realized that childbirth was a threshold, a gate, looking ahead to time shaped by my relationship to them, looking back to what I remembered of my own childhood. When my grandchildren were born, it was the threshold again, doubled, because my parents were dead, and I carried the family memories as well as anticipation of the years ahead. The weeks go by, the years, and everything has happened, is happening, and the hinges of my thinking creak and turn. Again, again, again. Still, still, still. I am not putting this well. But yesterday, reading poems by Louise Glück in honour of her Nobel Prize for Literature, I kept returning to certain passages:

Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
(from “Nostos”)

She is such a worthy poet for this award. Steady, serious, intimate in the most generous way, so that as we read, we are welcomed into the experience.

More than anything in the world
I love these evenings when we’re together,
the quiet evenings in summer, the sky still light at this hour.

So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus,
not to hold him back but to impress
this peace on his memory…
(from “Quiet Evening”)

It’s John and me reading the Odyssey together, it’s my children with their partners, it’s what I wish for my grandchildren, and what I hope my parents also knew as they sat by the window of their apartment in their final years, looking out at hummingbirds and deer browsing the soft grass. Poetry has the capacity to lead us through our lives, giving us courage to step over the thresholds, to push the creaky gate on the hinges that are our own bodies thinking, remembering, time accumulating in the fields where we smell the tall grass, the cut grass drying, and it is the grass of our childhoods, the grass where our own children played in the years we have gathered in our hands in such abundance to take home with us, enough for our grandchildren, and their children, and theirs. And at home? What’s waiting?

There was
a peach in a wicker basket.
There was a bowl of fruit.
Fifty years. Such a long walk
from the door to the table.