the stars come out: a late-January zuihitsu

the stars come out

1.

On these cold nights, I stand in the window and look at stars. A bright one hangs right over our western deck and the first time I get up, it is close enough to touch. The second time, I watch it set over the green rise beyond Sakinaw Lake, the one my children called Grass Lake Mountain for reasons of their own.

2.

I didn’t watch the inauguration of the new president but I listened to Yo Yo Ma somehow capture the possibility and hope that so many are feeling and also the gravity of the times we live in. I listened as the grace his fingers found in the strings took me — us— from an old hymn to the yearning in Dvorak’s exploration of a new world to a simple dignified dance. We could dance. We could. Now would be the time.

Morning star light the way
Restless dreams all gone
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life has begun

3.

Frost in the grass. A whole constellation glittering beneath my feet.

4.

On these cold nights, we need more comfort. Bring out the old quilts, the variable stars, the Ohio stars, the mended stars, the faded. Sleep under them as that one bright star in the dark sky sets. No need to get up. No need to think about the old president ever again, or say his name.

redux: Optimus

the optimus

Note: this was from January 20, 2018. I wish I still had the Optimus stove.

_________________________

When I was 23, I went away to Ireland to live for as long as my money lasted. I had $1200, mostly because I sold my little Datsun and a Walter J. Phillips woodcut I’d bought with some excess scholarship money a few years before. I’ve written about that time in my novella, Inishbream, as well an essay, “The One Currach Returning Alone”, in Phantom Limb. It was a strange and beautiful time of my life. I’d gone because I felt I’d burned my bridges in Victoria—several failed romances, a difficult relationship with a much-older painter, the sense that I needed to be alone in a way I couldn’t be in a place where I was known; I was young, remember, and not unfamiliar with drama…. I didn’t know where I’d go after the cottage someone had offered me turned out to be unsuitable (it was remote and people had camped in it and burned the floorboards for warmth…this wasn’t discovered until I was taken there to settle in) but luckily I had subsistence supplies: my down sleeping bag and a small Optimus stove my father had given me. I was willing to live quite rough (though I did think floorboards were a necessity, not a luxury). I wanted to try to find out if I was truly a writer. I wanted to test myself in ways I couldn’t really have articulated but somehow I knew I needed to try to find out what I could live without and what I could do in complete isolation. (Remember, I said I was not unfamiliar with drama.) Through a series of lucky encounters, I was led to an island off the Galway coast and a little cottage facing north. I had a big fireplace for heat and a small pile of turf to burn, along with any sticks I could scavenge on the beach, and I had an oil lamp for light. And candles. My down sleeping bag came in handy but I never did need my Optimus stove because the cottage came with a small propane stove. I had to lug the bottle (the islanders called the tanks “bottles”) over to the mainland and get it somehow to the nearest town when I needed a refill so I didn’t cook much, apart from steaming mussels from the rocks below my cottage, cooking nettles into soup, and making rice from the five pound bag I found in a health food store in Galway.

Sometimes I dream of that time so vividly that I wake in tears. I feel such tenderness for that young woman and her loneliness. Last night we were talking in bed and I sipped some Laphroaig, inhaling its wonderful aroma of seaweed and smoky peat, and maybe that’s why I dreamed again of Ireland. Not because I could afford fine single-malt. I couldn’t. I could barely afford the rice. But the turf fire often crozzled and I’d lean into the fireplace, adding bits of stick to try to encourage it to catch and the smoke permeated my sweater. It’s a beautiful smell, I think, and it lasted for ages in the big rough wool sweater I lived in that year. I’d sleep with my window open to the iodine tang of the ocean and it made me dream of storms, of drowning. Sometimes I’d hear a tinwhistle in my dreams, but it was almost certainly the man who played on the little lane above my house. He’d lean over the stone wall and the music would waver in the wind. By the time it found my open window, it was unearthly.

So last night, Ireland, and the Optimus stove, unused, but given pride of place on the table in my cottage. Just in case.

This is all so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tinwhistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along.

—from “The One Currach Returning Alone”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

“Here, at the edge of heaven…”

balloons

Late birthday cards arrived this week from two of my grandchildren. When they called on the day of the birthday, my grandson asked if there were presents. I told him there were. Good ones. Chocolate, books, silver bangles, a gift card for my favourite cidery, flowers, a white cotton nightdress trimmed in lace…He didn’t ask about balloons but his sister has drawn them for me in living colour. In her hands or mine? I like the jauntiness of the lifted leg, the fanciful cake or hat being carried into the rest of my life. I hear music! Will there be dancing?

My actual birthday was memorable for the quiet. At least it was quiet here. Friends delivered bouquets and stood at a distance to talk for a few minutes. Instead of opening sparkling wine, I promised them cake as soon as it’s safe to gather again. So yes, quiet here, though it was also the day of the insurrection in Washington and the news was filled with images of mayhem and terror. Sometimes the rest of the world feels very far away, messages coming such a vast distance that meaning can be lost in the gap.

This morning the light is subdued by mist but I think it might be clear up the mountain. We’re going to bundle up and see how far we can walk, John with his cane and special orthotic device in his shoe to support his recovering foot. I’ve been watching the snow line, the lovely sight of fresh white on the high firs, though at our level the daffodils are emerging from the soil and a single hellebore blooms.

In the midst of quiet and the ever-troubling news about the rising numbers of dead from Covid-19, there are things to celebrate. My collection of essays, Blue Portugal, has been accepted for publication by the University of Alberta Press. (More on this as details are confirmed.) John’s new book—a selection of his poems translated into Czech—is on its way from Ostrava to our mailbox near Ruby Lake. The greenhouse we ordered just after Christmas has arrived, in 3 boxes, and is waiting in the carport for assembly; a friend will help with that in February.

Yesterday, when we came out to our car after our swim at the pool, a gaggle of local geese flew overhead, loud as children at play. This morning, filling the bird-feeder, I could hear chickadees buzzing in the bare wisteria and ravens klooking in the woods, their courtship in full whirl. It’s cold but the sky has that February blue in it at dusk and the other night the sky was filled with stars. Soon we’ll be hearing the barred owls calling, the coyotes mating, loons down on the lake choosing the best sites for nests.

Tribal songs rise, rifling the stars. Here,
at the edge of heaven, I inhabit my absence.

–Du Fu

redux: I didn’t know myself.

Note: This post is from January, 2016. I was looking through my blog archives for something else and came across it. I was glad to be reminded that some Januaries have accumulated without political drama, without the weight of a pandemic keeping me awake at night, without, without, without.

*******

They’ve left, beginning the long day’s journey back to Ottawa, with visits to a friend in Vancouver planned, and they’ll drop Angelica off at the seaplane so she can return to her life in Victoria. And already I miss them. Families are such complex archives — the haircolours, the gestures, the stories. And how lovely it was to have a week living in the rich density of that archive. Though it had its moments of confusion. We’d pulled out some boxes of photographs and documents from my parents’ house and there were a couple of envelopes of things I’d set aside to give to my brothers when next I see them. Their baby pictures, our parents’ wedding photographs, old report cards, the church announcement (St. Andrew’s, Victoria) of my brother Dan’s baptism June 24, 1951 (and the back of this is so interesting, with its advertisements for businesses long gone: The Posy Shop at 623 Fort Street, ph: G-5422; Crown Dress & Hat Shop Millinery, Dresses and Accessories 614 View Street; The Toggery Shop Men’s and Young Men’s Clothiers, Hatters and Furnishers “Quality Always Assured” at 1105 Douglas Street). I was doing something else and Angelica was looking at the stuff in Dan’s envelope, including a baby photograph of him, when I heard her call out, “This is you, Mum, not Dan. Look, here’s your birthmark!”

me

And sure enough, though I didn’t know myself, there it is on his her my left wrist.

I was born with a dark birthmark the size of a dime on my wrist. It wasn’t raised, it never bothered me, not as a child or a young adult — although there were times in my adolescence when I was embarrassed by it (as I was with my surname until I was about 18), it was part of me and I thought it would stay with me my entire life. Then we spent a winter in Utah and I met a plastic surgeon at a dinner party and he urged me to have it removed. He would remove it, he said, for no charge. (He was Robert Redford’s dermatologist and spent a lot of time making the beautiful people even more beautiful. None of them wanted marks or blemishes or tags of skin.) But I didn’t want to have it removed. He insisted I take him seriously; he said I was at risk for skin cancer and that I should reconsider; so when we returned home that spring, I arranged with my doctor to have it dealt with. I miss it. I have a strange little scar on my wrist now instead of my friendly dark circle that somehow reassured me as a small child. It was my own special mark.

Before this, I didn’t have many images of myself as an infant. Cameras and film were expensive and in the early years of their marriage and young parenthood, my parents took pictures sparingly. This looks like a portrait — it’s been coloured in that old-fashioned way. John remarked that I should have known it was me because my feet haven’t really changed. And there are those sturdy calves, also unchanged. In fact, among my three brothers, Dan and I share a body type — our father’s.

It’s very fitting to have one’s children and grandchildren visit in January. A month named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, usually represented with two heads, one to look back and one to look forward; often one face is bearded and the other clean-shaven. I always think of the month itself (the month of my birth) as a jani, or ceremonial gateway, an opening. I was surprised at how I felt to see that 60-year old photograph of my infant self, birthmark intact, and how appropriate it seems to have it now to look at and think about, as the month progresses. It’s a kind of vertigo, a whoosh of apprehension of both time and its obstacles, but also its possibilities. To look back, with gratitude (that I was born, I was loved, I was part of a family) and also regret (the loss of that birthmark!); and to welcome the gateway into the unknown (the garden yet unplanted, the future children unborn). To remember the old businesses of Victoria, the infancy of my brothers, and to look into the deep future as easily as the deep past.

O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.

— George Oppen, from “The Building of the Skyscraper”

Monday, quotidian

cheese scone

While I was swimming this morning, feeling grey as the sky outside, in part because I was awake for ages listening to the cat chase a mouse he brought in the other night and still hasn’t caught, I lifted my head from the water and “Wild Mountain Thyme” was playing. Again, the song lifted my spirits, took them onto hillsides of purple heather and pungent herbs, Greece or southern France or the Nicola Valley where your foot can step innocently on a clump of southernwood and the air is filled with the scent. I had a cheese scone with coffee after my swim and when I opened a jar of Nicola Valley honey, it was as though I was there, on a dry roadside, bees humming in the rabbitbrush. I dreamed the other night that we were in Portugal, driving through a small village near Evora, and when I woke I thought, When this is over, I’d like to return to Evora, where we arrived in the dark and then walked after our first breakfast to see this at the top of the little street where our hotel was:

evora-temple-square

I’d like to walk again on the Pennask Lake Road at dusk where we saw flammulated owls eating moths on the warm gravel and to swim in Nicola Lake where bluets hovered on the safety buoys. To celebrate all the occasions with my family and friends. To welcome new books into the world with readings and parties. This morning I opened A Writer’s Diary to January, 1932. The day’s message:

Can we count on another 20 years? I shall be fifty on 25th, Monday week that is: and sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, and sometimes that I am still the youngest person in the omnibus. […]And I want to write another four novels…

Well, I’m 66 but I still hope for another 20 years. Another four books, if not all novels. I’ve begun two things, one of them fiction and one of them an extended essay that might simply be something of its own or else part of a group of connected essays. (I am still feeling my way with it but have the old excitement when I think about what it might become.) Later this month I’ll know if Blue Portugal will be published soon. So that leaves one more book. At least. Maybe walking on the edge of Pennask Lake Road, where you feel as though you’re on the spine of the earth, something else will suggest itself, sprung to mind with the scent of wild artemisias and brown-eyed susans, the hooked seeds of wild rye.

And we’ll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the bloomin’ heather
Will ye go, lassie, go?
I’ll go, yes. No need to ask twice.

(I wish I had a river.)

ready to come in

I wanted to write about the urgency I felt at 6:30 a.m., looking out to unexpected stars, one slipping below the western horizon, the urgency to do something fine and new as the first week of the New Year slipped away, the cat waking from the foot of the bed where the old Ohio Star quilt kept my feet warm through the cold night. I wanted to write about the sadness of the Christmas tree last night, its last hours in the warm house, the lights bright and clear, and the few ornaments strewn on its young branches. I wanted to have my birthday back, Epiphany, when instead of quietly thinking about my years and the passing of time, I listened obsessively to the news reports of insurrection and violence in Washington. I wanted to write something so memorable about the first Christmas we’ve spent alone in our nearly 42 years together, a small prime rib roast in the oven instead of a turkey for all who sat our table year after year, two foil crowns, and yet I don’t want it to be memorable. Wanted to write about the images of my grandchildren skating in their respective cities, two on a lake near their home, and two on a frozen creek, the courage it takes for a child to push away from a parent on metal blades. (I wish I had a river.) I have this urgency. I have the weeks ahead, spinning out from the reel of the years, I have the words, the yearning for a bonfire with all the branches from last week’s windstorm, every person I love around it, all of us singing into the darkness, without fear or any kind of grief, that star rising instead of setting, ash settling into my hair like a blessing.

white tulips: a birthday meditation

white tulips

Yesterday the power went out mid-afternoon and we ate a simple supper by the fire in lamplight. I went to bed early, trying to read with two little gadgets clipped to my book, small beams of light on the page. When I woke, power back on, John brought me coffee in bed and I heard the news about Reverend Raphael Warnock’s Senate win in Georgia and Jon Ossoff’s lead as the count resumed this morning. I opened my birthday gifts and we went off for a swim. Coming home, it was to the news that a mob incited by the President of the United States had breached barriers and were storming into the Capitol building.

The year ahead is like an unknown river, full of beauty and turbulence. Do we stand on the shores, wondering and timid, do we enter the water, do we swim, do we cling to the rocks, do we help each other, do we drift, do we sink?

I can’t stop listening to the news. On the counter prawns are thawing for a birthday dinner, a bottle of Chablis is chilling, garlic waiting to be peeled and minced to stir into melted butter. There’s even a small cake, glazed with ganache. On the table, white tulips delivered by dear friends.

In the night, boughs came down from the fir trees, a small dogwood fell across the driveway. Creeks swollen by heavy rains rush down the mountain. Chickadees and nuthatches dart from feeder to the twisted wood of the wisteria trained over a beam across our patio.

I can’t stop listening to the news.

I found myself in the water

morning lake 1

Four years ago I began to swim regularly at the local pool. In the autumn of 2016 I had some health issues. After being diagnosed in early September of that year with double pneumonia, my doctor wasn’t happy with the xrays and ordered a CAT scan. The scan showed a pulmonary embolism but also some nodes that resulted in a series of tests and consultations and eventually a PET scan because it was suspected I had metastatic lung cancer. Long story short: I didn’t. What did I have? No one knew. I eventually saw a hematologist and he too was a little puzzled. But again, long story short: I’m fine. During the period of uncertainty I think John was more anxious that I was. I was in a state of transparency, or at least that’s how I think of it. I kept being visited by the dead. I felt them around me, their hands on my shoulders, and although it was unsettling at first, it became very comforting. I’d come downstairs in the night to work at my desk and I knew I wasn’t alone. Meanwhile John would be awake upstairs worrying. In November of 2016, I sent him to the pool one morning. Swim, I told him. You need to do something to take you out of yourself for a bit. I wish you’d come too,  he’d say, and I was reluctant. Years ago we swam at the pool. Years ago I swam in the lake most summer days with my family. But then things changed. More people were around in both places, I was older, I was less willing to take off my clothes and cavort in a bathing suit. Or not cavort, but you know.

Anyway, we were always walking. Almost every day we’d go up the mountain or around a series of trails in the woods beyond our woods, until we came out on a road, either the one that came down the hill to Sakinaw Lake or else the one that passed the marsh by the creek between Ruby and Sakinaw Lakes, the marsh where we saw kingfishers and turtles and once, in winter, a single swan.

That fall of the mysterious illness, I had trouble walking any distance. My doctor thought it might be an inflammatory response to the pneumonia. My right knee was swollen and it hurt to move too much. But I wasn’t going to swim. Because a bathing suit? Among others?

And then one morning in early January, 2017,  I decided I needed to swim. I was drawn to water. I found my old black tank-suit. I joined John at the pool, finding a rhythm to take me up the 20 meters and back again. Back and forth. It wasn’t hard and it felt wonderful. If we went early-ish, there weren’t many people there. A guy who swam laps quite ferociously and who has become a friend (because when someone mentions modernism at the end of your swim, of course you’re going to want to talk to him some more). One or two others whom I knew in other ways years ago and who I know now as morning swimmers.

Because I was so accustomed to my slow kilometer (20 meters x 50 lengths) 3 times a week, I decided to return to the lake again too once the water warmed up in late May. It seemed silly to swim in a pool when I could be in a lake I’ve lived near for 40 years. A lake where we went most summer days when our children were young, where we had a favourite island for boat picnics, where my father fished when he visited us, sometimes bringing back cutthroat trout for a late breakfast. I’d gotten out of the habit of swimming there regularly, in part because the little wild area where we’d always gone had become a more organized park, with sand brought in for a beach, two picnic tables, a toilet, an area kept safe from boats with rope and buoys—and that brought more people, of course. I don’t like change.

Four summers ago I developed a new habit of lake-swimming. John and I went at 8:30, before other people were around. We mostly had the water to ourselves and I could swim the perimeter of the roped-off area for 25 minutes, sometimes watched by a kingfisher or ravens wondering if we’d brought food, sometimes a loon off-shore, swimming in quiet circles, and sometimes in the company of trout who’d jump out of the water for the various generations of flies.

morning lake 2

This past year, the lake was a salvation. The pool closed in March when we were officially declared to be in a pandemic. We missed our pool swims. As early as we could bear to enter the cold water, we were going down for a morning swim. As the water warmed up, into June, we were swimming longer. Every morning during the summer. Our Ottawa family came to stay for 2 weeks in July, when air travel was possible (that brief window), and it was lovely to have our grandsons join us most mornings. They went again later in the day too. Angelica and her beau came for a few days from Victoria and one day we all swam at Trail Bay, the day when Angie and Karna were flying home. When we met our Edmonton family at Lac LeJeune in August, we swam in that lake, and in Nicola Lake (twice), and in the Thompson River. My memories of family and summer are sun-spangled, damp with lake water, tangy with salt.

In water I sometimes think I do my best work. I stretch out my arms, I take in the sunlight, the rain, the sound of mergansers muttering over by the logs, the far-off revving of a boat engine, I think about difficulties I am having with writing (I once took apart an essay and put it together in a much better way, all while doing the backstroke), I reconstruct the past so it’s perfectly intact and coherent and present. This is the summer when we put Forrest in a plastic baby bathtub to keep him cool, this is the summer when the wild mint grew around the hardhack, right where the sand now slides into water, the summer of the wasp stings, the summer of Angelica diving over and over until she was perfect, of Brendan wearing his bike cap backwards and hoping to catch a turtle in an old ice-cream bucket. When I am swimming, everything is happening again, and still.

morning mergansers

The pool opened in early fall and although it’s different now, you have to book a time and make sure you’re out of the water at the end of your 45 minutes, your mask on as you enter the change room, and leave it,  it’s swimming. For John, after a surgery gone sideways, it’s an opportunity to exercise and feel buoyant again. I do my slow kilometer with revisions in mind as I anticipate a new collection of essays tentatively in the works for publication. And I’ve added a twice-weekly winter lake swim to my swimming schedule, a time when I feel completely alive in water both familiar and strange. One morning the ferns on the trail down to the lake were silver with frost and I couldn’t feel my feet as I did a brief few strokes within the roped perimeter.

After that fall and early winter when I waited for specialists to read my xrays and look serious as they traced the nodes with a cursor, when I wore the hospital gowns that never covered enough of me, when I entered the dark space of the machines that made visual the changes in my body, I sometimes forgot who I was. I was a lung with dark mysteries, blood that carried dangerous cargo, legs that longed for mountain trails. I found myself in water, strong and purposeful, swimming the lengths, beyond the rope, ravens vigilant in the cedars, and everything possible again.

fast away: zuihitsu for the end of the year

pandemic bread

1.

Before any rumour of virus, there was bread, there was bread rising overnight on the Mexican tiles, bread baking, bread broken with soup, spread with butter and honey, fine cheese, there was bread before, there was bread, there is bread, a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the loaf.

there were roses

2.

June mornings, the sound of bees, of hummingbirds, of ravens klooking in the deep woods, and bowls of roses to sit on the table, opening, opening, earwigs falling from their hearts.

pines at lac lejeune

3.

You heard their voices. You heard a Clark’s nutcracker. A boat. When you stood up under the pines, you had pollen on your shoulders. You don’t brush it off, your heart in the needles, the warm smell of the sap.

sky swim

4.

You will swim out into the clouds tomorrow to welcome the new year. The islands are your destination but you won’t arrive.

rock, written

The last days of 2020. Grey sky, a cloud of chickadees and nuthatches at the feeder, the sound of ravens in the woods when I went down to the old orchard this morning to gather cedar bark from the logs our friends cut for us the week before last. The bark makes such excellent firelighter on cold winter mornings and we need heat this time of year. We need light. And I need to remember that these months of isolation are just a blip in the long memory of life on earth.

I’ve been stitching a quilt for a friend. I began it just before the pandemic began and it had to wait because I needed some fabric, some batting, and a few other things I didn’t have on hand. And it’s waited too for me to have time to sit with it by the fire, waited during the weeks after John’s surgery, the weeks just before Christmas when I was rushing to finish up another quilt for Cristen’s birthday on the 21st, the Solstice.

graptolite quilt

Cristen’s quilt was big squares of French cottons arranged in a simple grid. The quilting was very simple too, another kind of grid. But this quilt—4 large log-cabin blocks, centred around little squares of red dupioni silk—has become a way to follow spirals where they lead across the plain grey-green cotton sashing. I’m quilting free-hand, letting small spirals send out tendrils to connect them to other small ones, and larger ones. Maybe I’ll use buttons to finish them off later.

I’ve been thinking about spirals and how they are kinetic reminders of time. Years ago I visited Newgrange, the Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland, older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids. I was there in spring, a lovely time to approach the imposing mound. But imagine it in mid-winter, imagine it on the Solstice, when narrow beams of light through the roof box reach the burial chamber deep within the mound, illuminating the inner sanctum. Of course there are spirals at Newgrange:

new grange

I am stitching spirals, thinking that these months are so long and so momentary. The spirals at Newgrange must surely have been inspired in turn by graptolithina, a subclass of Pterobranchia, fossil forms dating from the Cambrian to Carboniferous periods, as long as 540 million years ago. Graptos, Greek for written; lithos, meaning rock.

graptolite

Stitching the grammar of rocks into cotton, making a trail of ancient writing for a friend living so far away it might be another time, another epoch altogether. We make our mark, the colonies of tiny animals floating in the tide, the spirals guiding the dead, and the sunlight to them on the darkest days of the year.