“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river

dream grammar

dream grammar

Like so many people these days, these weeks, these years, I’m not sleeping well. Mostly I don’t mind waking in the middle of the night because I often have work to do and I love the experience of coming to my desk in the dark, feeling my way to the chair, the lamp. But some nights I don’t want to leave my bed and those are the times I lie awake and feel my heart racing, my mind trying to make sense of what the world’s become.

Or I dream, and then wake trying to find the meaning in what I’ve dreamed. Two nights we were driving somewhere near Lillooet and we took a side road over some hills. On the other side of the hills, a small town so peaceful and beautiful that I was crying as we drove up and down its quiet streets. The houses were small and close together, every window uncurtained, and through one we saw a tall Black woman helping her young son iron a shirt, its crisp sleeves hanging off the board. In another, a wedding was taking place, with soft-faced people lit by golden light, some of the party spilling over into the tiny garden. Why have we never come here before, I asked, as we slowly drove past a few wooden buildings, a general store, a wide square with benches by a fountain. Why. Leaving, we saw the sign for the town: Wharton. It’s not on any map. I’ve checked. But remember Melville?

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Last night I woke from a dream of shells. Hundreds of them, white and clean. I was trying to decide how many to bring home. How could I choose? They were all perfect, all beautiful. In the dark, trying to make sense of what it meant to dream of shells, I suddenly found myself saying some words to myself and I realized they were the missing section for an essay I’ve been working on. I usually have paper and a pencil on my bedside table but due to an accident with coffee yesterday morning, my table was bare. Never mind, I thought to myself, Just keep saying the words. You’ll remember. And this morning I did. The essay, “Seams: piece-work in 19 uneven stitches”, now has 20, which feels more complete somehow.

But back to the shells. What do they mean? I’ve been looking at various sources of dream analysis and, well, there’s no consensus. They can reference death, the soul leaving the body, or strength and protection. They can indicate you are in hiding. Or that you need to let go. Dream grammar is as difficult to learn as any other.

Sometimes I dream of old friends, ones I haven’t thought about in years. Or friends long-dead who are somehow waiting for me to talk to them. Maybe they’re living in Wharton in those of those houses under the leafy chestnut trees, maybe the house with the golden light where a wedding was celebrated with laughter, on a quiet street with no other cars but ours, slowly passing in wonder and a kind of sorrow that we’d never known this place before. I returned to sleep, hoping to dream my way back to Wharton but it’s gone, hidden away in a pleat of hills near Lillooet,. Oh goodnight.

Clouds drifting the whole day;
a traveler traveling who never arrives.

Three nights you have been in my dreams;
as your friend, I knew your mind.

You say your return is always harrowing;
your coming, a hard coming;

Rivers, lakes, so many waves;
in your boat you fear overturning.

–from “Dreaming of Li Bai”, by Du Fu, trans. Mike O’Connor

“No more twist.”

no more twist

There were roses and pansies upon the facings of the coat; and the waistcoat was worked with poppies and corn-flowers.

Everything was finished except just one single cherry-coloured button-hole, and where that button-hole was wanting there was pinned a scrap of paper with these words—in little teeny weeny writing—

NO MORE TWIST

I don’t know how many years we’ve been watching Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester at Christmas. 15? 20? I love the story of the mice who help an ailing tailor finish a waistcoat for the Lord Mayor’s wedding, completing the work while he is sick in bed.

twist

Completing, apart from that single button-hole, because they’d run out of twist. The tailor had tasked his cat Simpkin with purchasing the thread he needed and Simpkin, in a very feline way, was sulky about the tailor rescuing mice from their prisons under tea-cups and he hid the twisted thread away in a teapot. Last year, our first Christmas ever alone (because of Covid and because John was recuperating from major surgery), our Edmonton family suggested we might like to watch The Tailor of Gloucester with them; they found the animated version we love on YouTube and we have the entire Beatrix Potter opus here on dvds. That was sweet. This year we watched with Angelica and Karna and it was just as lovely as ever. The moment when the tailor, worried that he has lost too much time to illness and won’t be able to finish the waistcoat, and finds it laid out on his worktable with a tiny note —

twist note

I am thinking of the story this morning because I have only a few feet of stitching left to do on my quilt in progress but I’ve run out of the red sashiko thread I’ve been using. I’d ordered two spools, each wound with 30 meters. I thought that would be more than enough. But I guess some of my river systems (the way I’m thinking of the quilting) have meandered and idled and I’ve finished my spools. On the weekend I ordered more and it should be here later this week (though the delivery date changes every time I look up the tracking number). It’s not thread I can buy locally. The nearest source for the kind I like is a small business in the Fraser Valley. I’d ordered the blue momen cottons you can see immediately to the left of the long red strip in my photo (and the red is a true vivid red, not the orange-y colour you see there; I can’t seem to photograph its true colour) when I ordered the first spools of thread and this time I ordered more of those rich Japanese blues. During this bleak month, with its cold and snow and my own dark moments, sewing the blue cotton has kept me hopeful.

I’ve also finished the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and it was the other thing that kept me more or less hopeful during January. Hopeful that despite our relative isolation, our collective anxiety about plagues and political upheaval, it’s possible to write about things one loves and wants to keep intact in memory and language.

It never occurred to me, as a child allowed to borrow an atlas during a wet recess or because I’d finished my assignments early, that someone might actually own an atlas, or several, that the pages would show how borders shift, how rivers change, oxbow, leave their banks, join with other watercourses, enter lakes, the waters amalgamating. Yet somehow a river can leave again, return to its original course, sure of its water.

When my thread arrives — today or tomorrow or even next week, because those are all the duly promised delivery dates–I’ll sew the final lengths of the rivers into place on blue cotton and on red. My stitches are nothing as delicate as those left by the mice but this quilt I’ve been making is intended for warmth and comfort during the winter months and its stitches are durable enough for that.

a map of those lost moments

old rivers

The snow is all gone. A week ago, drifts by the woodshed, heaped along the highway, ice on the drive leading up to our house. Everything was muffled–the sound of a plane overhead, ravens in the woods, and the sound of sheets of frozen snow falling from our metal roof as the thaw came. 10 days ago I turned 67. The turn is complete and I have begun to feel those years accumulated in my body as I think about spring.

These are such strange times. Some days go by and it’s as though nothing has changed. We swim, I cook, John fills the woodbox, we keep the fire going, and we continue to write. But the news! I’ve always been a news junkie and so I read several papers online as well as listening to the CBC hourly news several times a day. Is is just because it’s winter, and dark, that the world seems to have become both sick and dysfunctional? More and more people infected with Omicron, hospitals stressed, our social safety nets challenged. Russia rattling swords on the borders of Ukraine, the Taliban taking Afghanistan back into darker times, unending drama to the south of us…it’s hard to imagine better days.

When I woke in the night I was haunted by what I haven’t done. As we enter the 3rd year of this pandemic, I wonder why I haven’t used the time more productively. I keep saying I’m going to improve my French (2 bilingual grandsons…), organize my files more efficiently, find a way to winnow some of the clutter at every turn in this house I love so much. I’d even like to become more proficient as a quilter, a maker of textiles. Awake, I am haunted by lost possibilities. When I work on the quilt I am nearly finished, I realize that part of what I am sewing is a map of those lost moments. As I push my needle in and out of the rich blue and red cottons on the quilt top, the red traces on the underside echo the sleepless nights, the roads we never took, the rivers I never entered because of turbulence or fear. Once, swimming in the Thompson River, I could smell fish and I realized that as we were rafting (and swimming in calm moments when our guide said we could) from Spences Bridge to Lytton, sockeye swam beneath us, heading in the other direction, to the places of their origins. They’re in the quilt too, their own courage and perseverance at odds with what I see as my own lack. I sew my irregular stitches, never improving, while the world is on fire, dark with war, shadowy figures conspiring to violence, rafts sinking, and my only effort this morning is to stack logs by the woodstove and hope for the best.

            The stove’s flame-red mirage lingers.
News comes from nowhere. I sit here,
Spirit-wounded, tracing words onto air.
                          –from “Facing Snow, by Du Fu (trans. David Hinton)

redux: “I will explain your route…”

Note: I’ve been looking at posts from the Before Times and this was just before, January 2020. I was curious about what I was reading and thinking. It turns out to be more of the same. I am still sewing, still working on essays, and I am reading Homer still, via Rosemary Sutcliff, with one of my grandsons, who is caught in the magic of those stories.

_______________________

Angelica called on Friday to ask about the tiny brown bird she saw spiralling up a tree trunk in Victoria. It looked a bit like a wren, she said to her dad. But he knew it was a brown creeper because we’d just watched one on this tree right outside our kitchen window (and there’s no creeper in this photograph so don’t strain your eyes!):

tree without creeper

They spiral as they search the bark for insects and they use their tails for balance. While I was watching the bird the other day, I was thinking of stitching, long loose stitches as it moved up the tree trunk and as I sewed the spirals on Henry’s kite quilt. Did I think of the bird as stitching because I was doing that? Are its movements true spirals or do I imagine them that way because I love the Fibonacci sequence in nature and look for it when I am planting and harvesting? And sewing?

About stitching…On Friday night we were reading the Odyssey, Book 12, and John stopped to say, These lines could be an epigraph to one of your essays. The lines, spoken by Circe to Odysseus on his return to Aeaea from his visit to Hades, are part of Circe’s guidance to him as he undertakes what he hopes will be the final leg of his voyage home to Ithaka:

At dawn, sail on. I will explain your route
in detail, so no evil thing can stitch
a means to hurt you, on the land or sea.

We are reading Emily Wilson’s translation and it’s wonderful. But this moment, this word. I wondered how the male translators had handled this passage. So I went looking. My favourite translation until now is Robert Fitzgerald’s. This is probably because it’s the one I came to first, as an 18 year old university student without any Greek. I love the long muscular lines, the vivid language. Here’s how he translates that moment:

                             Sailing directions
landmarks, perils, I shall sketch for you, to keep you
from being caught by land or water
in some black sack of trouble.

And Robert Fagles?

But I will set you a course and chart each seamark
so neither on sea nor land will some new trap
ensnare you in trouble, make you suffer more.


I confess I don’t really know Homeric Greek. When I was writing my novel A Man in a Distant Field, I worked my way through Athenaze, Book 1, an introductory text for Ancient Greek. It was difficult, yes, but the protagonist in my book was translating some of the Odyssey and I needed to be able to do this for him. At that time we didn’t have a very good Internet connection. Ours was dial-up and using it for long periods meant no one could phone us so we tended to be sparing in how much time we spent online. I discovered the Perseus Digital Library, at Tufts University, a great resource for anyone interested in classical texts. You can read them in Greek or Latin or English. You can click on any word in Greek or Latin and you get a little window with a morphological analysis of the word. The Perseus site uses the 1919 A.T. Murray translation.

…but at the coming of Dawn, ye shall set sail, and I will point out the way and declare to you each thing, in order that ye may not suffer pain and woes through wretched ill-contriving either by sea or on land.

I have the Loeb Odyssey, in two volumes, which is Murray’s translation updated by George Dimock, still a prose translation, but the language is less archaic. Circe still points out the way and declares each thing.

When I work through the Greek text, word by word, at Perseus, and with my Godwin Greek Grammar, I get something like this.

But I at least bring to light a way eat each show by a sign in that place which contrivance of ill grievous (causing pain) sum salt earth suffer misery (calamity) have

No stitching. But Circe was a weaver and would she really use the language of mariners or something more related to the work she did with such skill? I love that Emily Wilson has, in this tiny moment in a huge text, brought a feminine (even feminist) gloss to the language of the poem. And I loved that we both noticed it, reading the poem together, while just outside brown creepers made their own metaphorical stitches on a Douglas fir that seems empty this morning without them.

line: “track, course, direction.”

line

a Middle English merger of Old English line “cable, rope; series, row, row of letters; rule, direction,” and Old French ligne “guideline, cord, string; lineage, descent” (12c.), both from Latin linea “linen thread, string, plumb-line,” also “a mark, bound, limit, goal; line of descent,” short for linea restis “linen cord,” and similar phrases, from fem. of lineus (adj.) “of linen,” from linum “linen” (www.etymonline.com)

I am finishing the quilt I began in November, an exploration of lanes and rivers, the relationship between water and our vascular systems, how a river’s course can be disrupted by weather events, and also an excuse to work with my favourite blue cottons. I’m using red sashiko thread and the beautiful long sharp sashiko needles from Japan. Yesterday I was sewing and I realized that there are only 2 or 3 lines of stitching in the entire quilt (and it will be large enough for a queen-sized bed). I began in the middle, which is usual for the quilting or stitching part of making a quilt; you work outwards so as to avoid ruckles and to keep things smooth and taut as you sew. (The big red stitches you can see are the initial basting stitches to keep the three layers in place before the actual quilting begins. And for this quilt I’m using an embroidery hoop rather than my larger quilting frames. It’s just easier for lap sewing.)

But when I realized there was only a couple of lines to this quilt, I thought how like writing sewing can be. You begin with a line. Where will it take you? Will you find yourself in a familiar landscape, will you wander a little by the Nicola River, the sound of Clark’s nutcrackers in the pines, will you try to match a road you have seen on a map with the contours of the hills you are driving through, will you stop to catch your breath as you walk under the pylons of the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir power lines, lines strung out against the sky like staves, ravens knock knock knocking on the metal to make the musical notations, will you wind around and around the switchbacks coming down off Pavilion Mountain, will you gather your lines together until you have enough for an essay, a novel, a book of life? When I found the beginning of a line in the quilt, the place I’d started from, I sewed a tiny shell button to anchor it in place.

The earliest sense in Middle English was “cord used by builders for taking measurements;” extended late 14c. to “a thread-like mark” (from sense “cord used by builders for making things level,” mid-14c.), also “track, course, direction.” Meaning “limit, boundary” (of a county, etc.) is from 1590s. The mathematical sense of “length without breadth” is from 1550s. From 1530s as “a crease of the face or palm of the hand.” From 1580s as “the equator.”

As I come to the end of the stitching, I am wondering how I will bind this quilt. I’d thought I might simply wrap the backing around the edges and slipstitch them into place to finish it off. But the sheet I used for the backing is something I experimented with to use up some indigo dye and it doesn’t really look nice as binding (though I love it for backing):

ghost fish

(Some of the eel-grass pattern at the top will need to be trimmed and I’m thinking I’ll use the scraps as part of a batch of keepsakes to celebrate my book Blue Portugal  when it’s published this spring. John is willing to print some bookmarks or cards on our old platen press and I’ll fasten some of the fabric on the card with shell buttons and red silk thread. Stay tuned!) But back to the binding (an appropriate term for finishing a quilt which is a set of lines as eloquent as essays): deep blue? A lighter slate blue? I usually make my own bindings but don’t have enough of any of the fabrics I used to piece this together so I’ll have to see what the fabric store in Sechelt has available.

In one of the essays in Blue Portugal, I write about atlases, how I loved them as a child, and how I still read them now, following the lines on their maps with a finger, wondering how it would feel to be alive in those geographies. Travel has become imaginary, postponed, occluded by circumstances. When I sew the coarse red lines through 3 thicknesses of textile, I am making my own atlas, unbound and wild, dense with its own possibilities, moving into tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Looking into the tattered cloth-bound copies in the classrooms of my childhood, I could dream my way onto continents so far away it was tomorrow there as I traced borders with a wondering finger. I remember learning how to use the legend, that the little box with lines and colour charts provided visual aids to help you to understand where land rose above sea level, how deep the sea was, how some cities were larger than others by the circle used to represent them. Was it infilled, was it red, did it contain a star? There were the principal roads and the other roads, thin lines (usually red), going from one circle or dot to another, across borders, through the shadings that meant mountains. And the thin blue lines, scribbling across the map, widening to pools, meeting other rivers, breaking away again, finally reaching one ocean or another. (from “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”)

line2

birthday, with arctic filter

birthday girl with arctic filter

1.

Though snow swirled yesterday and the roads were icy, though ravens have begun their courtship over our woods, acrobats of love, though the house is quiet and the cat is sleeping, I am happy to have reached my 67th birthday as the days grow a little longer and the sun dreams of summer.

2.

The snow fell overnight. Again. Birds wait on the wall of logs. Happy to have reached my birthday, though a virus keeps friends and lovers apart, though the cold reaches right into the corners of the kitchen and I haven’t taken my tuque off for weeks. Happy happy happy. At least today.

3.

What did the year hold in its 12 months, its moons and stars, its generous days. What. There were lonely times (when I could not find a friend), there were dark hours, so dark it was hard to find the tiny light glowing behind the abalone shell at the top of the stairs, there was joy. Birdsong on spring mornings, a bear with cubs in the old orchard.

4.

The bougainvillea looks sad in the greenhouse, though I kept a lightbulb burning to keep the place from freezing. The geraniums, limp. The olive trees surprisingly upright and vivid. This is my birthday, I’ll tell them, We have the spring to look forward to, the summer. (Though some of them remember the heat dome, the weeks without rain.) We have warmth and spring rain, tiny frogs finding your leaves, dragonflies in the open door.

5.

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house.

6.

The blue lanes, the untidy rivers, the red pulse of my own capricious heart as I swim – the quilt is nearly finished. I thought of water as I stitched, followed each oxbow and meander.

7.

How now?
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?

8.

To look forward to: some of your family visiting in February; Venus at its brightest in the middle of that month; the scribble of gold as a high jet passes your house from somewhere to somewhere; your new book in early April, the blue of its cover exactly what you dreamed it would be; the first miners lettuce; the bowl of snowdrops in bloom by the door (as you leave and return). May, June, July, August, the months collecting, accumulating, until another year has written itself into your memory. Look forward, past the snow and the broken branches, the days that are barely light, the ice on Oyster Bay.

9.

O time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie

(The passages in 5,7, and 9 are from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play I’ve always loved.)

memory grove

a grove

11 years ago this month I was working on the first edits of my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. It was a book I’d written over five years, trying to gather together significant trees in my life as memory markers, mnemonics. I’d intended it to be a memoir, and it is; but it strays a little from the usual interpretation of the genre, or at least as I understood it to be then. It was as much a natural history, a cultural history, as it was–is–a personal history. Readers and reviewers were mostly generous and the book was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. I was invited to do some really wonderful events, including a presentation at a gathering of women arborists. And then, as happens, the book slipped quietly out of sight. In the ten years that followed, a whole lot of books about trees were published and I read many of them, finding in them a familiar and congenial world.

This morning Angie and Karna were packing to leave after spending 10 days with us over the Christmas holiday. We were snowed in, sort of, and spent a lot of time eating large meals, venturing out once or twice to shop (pulling groceries up the driveway on a toboggan), and talking by the fire. The power was out for a day and a half which made for some interesting adjustments. (We have a well and when the water tank is empty, we have to be creative about water.) Angie and her dad finished putting together the loom they’d designed together by phone and which John had mostly constructed in readiness for Christmas. (Angie taught herself to weave during the pandemic, making herself a small loom and weaving some beautiful small landscape tapestries on it. She wants to try some bigger projects.) And when they were almost ready to drive away, Angie said she’d like to give me my birthday gift early: Around the World in 80 Trees, by Jonathan Drori, illustrated by Lucille Clerc. I can tell just by opening it randomly that I will love it.

3 days into the new year has me thoughtful about what I’ve done as a writer and what I haven’t. I think Mnemonic is the most challenging book I’ve written in that I went in directions I didn’t expect to go, wrote about my relationships with trees, with the past, with who I was and wasn’t, and this morning I took out a copy, dusted it off, and put on the table with my new gift. They look like good companions, don’t they? And they have made room there on the table for my beautiful yellow cedar and walnut-bound journal, its pages ready for new ideas, extended thinking. I also dusted off a fountain pen made by an Ottawa wood-turner, given me a few birthdays ago by Forrest and Manon, and filled it with ink. Long live the trees.

When I was working on those first edits, I remember wondering why I hadn’t written the book I’d originally intended: a more standard memoir, with a clear chronological arc, and a straight-forward narrative. But I had a wonderful editor, Akoulina Connell, who told me there was a through-line and arranging the individual essays (or chapters, depending on how you want to describe them…) artfully would allow readers to experience a coherent narrative experience. I hope that’s true. In any case, I don’t think any book I’ve written has ended up being what I thought I was going to write. I know I’ve said this before but following the thread that I’m presented with at the beginning of a book determines the destination, not known beforehand and often a complete surprise to me.

What happened in a grove of trees? In the first place, a life, my life, accumulated there. I walk through, remembering, stopping at each tree–pines, cedars, firs, the unlikely olives and planes, Garry oaks, live oaks, the beeches of my lost grandfather’s Bukovina (and the new planted copper beech, caged in deer-proof wire, in memory of my father, waiting for its benediction of ash), arbutus on an island I sailed to as a young woman, the trembling aspens passed on my way to a wedding, and the arboretum of rare or cherished plantings. “The best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement,” said Cicero in his De Oratore, and I despair of such orderliness. Everything comes to me in such splendour and chaos. Am I right in remembering the owner of the Rolls-Royce as the delivery man at the pharmacy where I worked? Or that I drank raki on a quay on Crete in the morning while my hands bled from rough ropes, that I ever wept (in the second place) on the side of the highway while listening to David Daniels sing Handel?

Later today I’ll work on the final edits of Blue Portugal, guided again by a wonderful editor, Kimmy Beach. Yesterday I sat at the dining table because the power was out and my study was dark; I read each word, as Kimmy advised, and saw a few tiny omissions or mistakes on my part (a comma instead of a period, a missing noun). I also read the book as though for the first time, wondering at its strangeness. I’m not sure what I’d hoped to write but I don’t remember thinking that I’d be exploring the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in Drumheller quite so deeply or that there would quite so much focus on my aging body. But there you have it. The thread again, the mysterious journey.

“Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars” (Merwin)

old cedar

Walking up through deep snow after my last swim of the year, I paused under the old cedar at the turn in the driveway. I think it’s dead. It’s been dying for years. But there are lots of woodpecker holes up and down its ancient height and I’ve seen a barred owl in its upper limbs. I love the chaotic beauty of its limbs. And look how they hold the snow so gracefully, so willingly.

At this point in winter, I often try to to figure out what the year has meant to me. It hasn’t been easy, though in many ways my life has gone on the same as always. But the news fills the kitchen in the morning and in late afternoon and it hasn’t been good news. Each cycle is so dire and awful: the virus of course in all its iterations; the heat dome, the wildfires, the atmospheric rivers, the collapse of major highways in the province, and now this cold and snow, unusual for our damp and mild coast. The situation on borders as refugees assemble and attempt to cross, in Afghanistan as women are hunted down, in the English Channel and Mediterranean as rafts carrying sink with their desperate human cargo. What to do? I listen. I pay attention. If I can, I send money. I lie awake at night and wonder at our species, our capacity for compassion and ignorance and cruelty.

And what else does the year mean? I’m alive. I’m healthy. So is my husband, though he will never walk normally again after suffering an injury to his sciatic and peroneal nerves during bilateral hip surgery. But we swim, we work in our garden (barring snow), chop wood, keep our fire going. We’ve both been working on new writing and I’ve been finishing up edits on my forthcoming collection of essays, Blue Portugal. John wrote a memoir about building our house and is now trying to puzzle through his father’s experience in a POW camp during WW2. We’re not unhappy. Is it enough?

Right now in the kitchen, John is talking to two of our grandchildren, via WhatsApp, and our daughter and her partner are chiming in. Unicorns and lego and goalie equipment have been shown and admired. Laughter swirls in the air. I peek in from time to time, see their beloved faces on the tiny screen.  We go on.

Tonight we’ll celebrate here, the 4 of us, with snow-chilled Prosecco and some mezes—smoked salmon, olive bread, various pickle-y things, devilled eggs, baked Brie, some tarts I’ll fashion with filo and Asiago cheese, and a luscious chocolate cake filled with ganache. But the year feels unfinished somehow, as though someone began it and then abandoned it because of design flaws or mistakes too serious to repair. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll feel differently. The first day of a new year always has potential and I have the beautiful new wood-bound journal to guide me through it.

open

Early this morning I woke to snowlight in my bedroom and stars in the cold sky. I stood by the window and looked out at them, far lights through the evergreen boughs, icy and remote. I didn’t wish, What would I have hoped for? I have the things I need, people I love in my house right now, and those faces on the tiny screen. My wishes for the planet and all its inhabitants have been sent out into the dark so many times in the past year and I’m reluctant to admit it feels a little pointless to continue. Is it the stars or me? Right now there’s blue sky, nearly a foot of snow, and coyote tracks leading into our old orchard, precise as the lines I am trying to write.

Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning
                                  W.S. Merwin

what are you hoping for (how does it feel)

pool

This morning I swam–imagine me in the lane on the left; what you can’t see are the huge windows looking out to snow–and I thought about the upcoming year. What are you hoping for, I asked myself, stroking on my back, looking up at the slatted ceiling, the little flags. (When I woke in the night to pee, I saw a few bright stars glittering above the mountain and I asked myself the same question.) My immediate hope was that the pool stays open during these perilous times and that I can continue my slow kilometre, three mornings a week. And then I hoped for better guidance during this pandemic because there are things I think should happen–free N95 masks (two years into this, it seems to me that in a province with an active pulp and paper industry, there could have been more effort to manufacture masks for our population); better ventilation in our schools; better attention to the needs of vulnerable citizens. We’re told to be kind and yes, yes, we need to be kind. But we need to be smart too. What do we do about people who refuse to be vaccinated but who want to be part of the social fabric? I don’t know. But can we continue the way we are, with people willing to stand outside our hospitals and schools, harassing others?

So I swam and I tried to think my way into the new year. And as I swam, the music played. The lifeguards often ask what we’d like and I tell you that doing a slow kilometre to Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto is sublime. But so is swimming to bluegrass or the Supremes (you can’t hurry love) or Adele. This morning no one asked. Roy Orbison, some other stuff I didn’t recognize, but then when I heard the opening chords of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” I smiled to myself.

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone
 
I swam and listened and thought about the novel I’m finding my way back into after (mostly) finishing up the edits for Blue Portugal, thanks to the wonderful Kimmy Beach, who asks the right questions and knows all kinds of stuff, like diacritics for passages of Greek. I thought about what Blue Portugal might look like now that the designer can apply his magic to completed pages, with text that uses margins like poetry does, with gaps and spaces and passages running down the middle like rivers. how excited I am to see how it evolves, and how I am drawn back to Easthope, the working title for my novel. Easthope is really mostly Egmont (though there will be some differences in both geography and characters) and when the pandemic was first declared, we had just been out for supper to the pub on the edge of Jervis Inlet where we saw whales and where we’ve returned when times felt safer — summer, because we could eat on the deck with wind blowing viruses to kingdom come; and in the fall when one needed to show proof of vaccination to come into the pub. It was never crowded and the tables are set far apart, Twice we sat by a roaring fire and ate steelhead tacos with chowder, feeling both the strangeness of the times and also blessed, if that doesn’t sound too emotional.
 
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
 
What are you hoping for, I asked during my last lap, and for a moment it was this, this, this. The water, Dylan, my husband in the next lane, daughter and her beau waiting at home, dough for cinnamon buns rising in the big bowl, our own fire warm as icicles form on our eaves, a novel to write, a book coming out in April with the most beautiful cover, everyone in my family healthy (so far), the world white and mysterious, All the irritations eased out as that kink in my shoulder eased out, the anxieties (for now), the last lap, the final strokes. I’ll do what I can, hope for what’s possible, wear the masks, stay clear of the wild-eyed people with the signs near Davis Bay, and remember the beauty of those whales as we sat by the window overlooking Jervis Inlet, my notebook at hand, the sound of a boat approaching the dock, tok-tok-tok, and cormorants fishing as though nothing else mattered.
 
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse