“I sing of a night..”

festive

Yesterday I was down in Sechelt (about 45 minutes south of where I live) and I thought how festive the small town looked. In the Bakery, where we had coffee and one of the delicious chocolate-dipped shortbreads, John observed that every surface was decorated. Big tins of gingerbread people, silver stars, baskets of the shortbreads (and several other versions), so that we felt we sitting inside a Dickens story. And outside, the chestnuts and acacias on the square were draped with lights, the trees along Cowrie Street twinkled, the storefronts were bright with stars and garlands. I wonder if it’s easier somehow to keep Christmas in a minor key when the place where you shop is so lovely? I was thinking about this as I drank my coffee this morning, planning how best to pack the parcels going to Victoria and Edmonton (we are going to Ottawa for a few days over Christmas so it’ll be a matter of finding room in our suitcases for the gifts going there). I remembered the early days of our family life here and how we wondered if we’d be able to continue the traditions of a tree cut on Christmas Eve, cards printed on our old platen press, simple presents for our immediate family, baskets and bags of homemade treats for our friends. I’m happy to say that most of this continues. I say “most” because this year the card—a Steller’s jay cut into lino—didn’t work out, despite two days of painstaking work on the part of the printer. I made the lino-cut, from a sketch by our friend Liz, using a photograph and an actual jay on the railing of the deck, eating its breakfast. John set the type, blocked it up, but the ink was old and the results aren’t nice. We are of two minds. He wants to send it, with an apologetic verse (more typesetting, more tedious fiddling). I don’t.

Still, the woods look so beautiful this morning and the oranges in a bowl in the kitchen smells like Christmases past and today I’ll wrap and package the things I hope carry messages of deep affection and longing. The old carols call, asking to be played, to be remembered on the cold days leading up to the day itself. My favourite might be the haunting “Don oiche ud i mbeithil“, recited by Burgess Meredith in English, sung in Irish by Kevin Conneff, on The Bells of Dublin.

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born

“And will you never cut the cloth…”

needle

And will you never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be?

Two things wind themselves together. A voice, Sandy Denny’s, singing “Farewell, Farewell”, written by Richard Thompson, and the notion of thread. I was listening, even crying a little, as I sorted through a container of spools. I was looking for the right colour for something I’m making, it being the time of year for gifts. And I thought, how many miles of thread have I cut in my life, how many tiny eyes have I threaded with the white lengths, the red, the sturdy hand-quilting cottons? If I traveled the distance of those lengths, where would I be? Who would I be? I chose the pale blue thread and a small sharp needle and put another log on the fire.

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travelers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call

redux: what does a carrier bag hold?

Note: this was from December 1, 2014. Yet it’s still true, still ongoing. I did finish both the essay and the quilt. The essay was published first in Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, edited by Josh MacIvor-Andersen, and then it became the title essay of a collection of my work, published by Mother Tongue Publishing. The quilt went to Forrest and Manon for their March birthdays. And it’s all happening again—essays in progress, quilts inspired by them, and my bedrock belief that it’s part of a continuum.

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For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to work on a long essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which is loosely about mathematics, wine, love, horticulture, and genetics. It’s a hodgepodge, yes, but I know that there’s also a coherence there, a pattern, and I’m a little at a loss right now to see it. (I’ve also begun a novella which is taking my attention, though not all of it.) The essay has a quilt to accompany it; the quilt is a textural meditation on the mathematics in the essay and the essay also details the making of the quilt. The individual parts of the quilt are all designed and made and now I need to piece it together, to find a pattern for the individual squares (though in fact they’re rectangles!) to echo the elements in the essay. This is where I’m puzzled and can’t see or think my way through it.

I don’t like being idle. And I think best when I have some sort of hand work to do. I am a terrible knitter but sometimes I knit just to feel the accumulation of yarn making itself into a scarf or a blanket, a kind of magic emerging from the needles. And my quilting skills are only a little better but I love to see the possibilities of colour, harmonies, even narratives in fabric and to find ways to work with those. My brain is not logical and I can’t follow directions so the quilts I’ve made over the years (more than 25 — years and quilts) are very much my own. And they’re explorations.

Maybe they’re also carrier bags. Years ago I visited a class of students studying my novel, Sisters of Grass, and when I met their instructor before the class, he told me that he thought of my work in the tradition of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, from her essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World. As it turned out, I’d brought along a basket of objects central to the novel — a sampler, some Ponderosa pine cones, photographs taken by the ethnographer James Teit — so I noticed the instructor (a very congenial man) smiling as I unpacked my basket, reading a little from my novel, and passing around objects for interested students to look at.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all.

A carrier bag holds more than food, of course. It holds anything you want it to and sometimes it holds ideas, simple ones and more adventurous ones. It holds scraps of fabric and pine needles for baskets and memories of campfires and the sweet scent of a baby sleeping.

This weekend I had such an urge to make something, my hands yearning for work. But I’m still weighing and pondering the final pattern of “Euclid’s Orchard” and wasn’t able to take that any further. I went into the trunk holding my stash of fabrics and pulled out a whole passle of scraps, bits and pieces left from other quilts but too pretty to throw away. There wasn’t enough to anything big or elaborate so I decided to cut what I had into five-inch squares and find a pleasing way to piece them together. It took two mornings to cut out all the squares — 168 of them — and then an afternoon and a morning to get to the point I’m at now: ten courses of the eventual fourteen pieced together. The cottons have no relationship other than the one I’ve imposed on them. Some of them are French prints, some scraps from intricate quilts I’ve made in the past, and some of the fabric comes from an unfinished dress begun by a friend and passed along to me because she thought I’d like the print and might want to cut up some of the usable areas.

This morning, as I sewed lengths of squares together, I found myself thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” and I think I might be ready to work on the essay again.  Something about the quiet labour of fitting pieces together, aligning their edges, trying to make the seams even, looking for a way to highlight a colour — the punch of yellow in this simple patchwork quilt has me remembering the sunlight on the orchard that is central to the essay…

If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bright quilt to keep away winter’s chill? Blues, yellows, and a long diagonal of red, bright as berries and necessary as blood.

P1100972

Winter’s story

winter's story

In January, 2017, a cat began hanging around our place. We don’t live near other people, apart from one couple just beyond us who are here part-time. We asked them about the cat but they didn’t know anything about it. I put out a bowl of food, which was eaten immediately, and I put a pillow on a chair under the eaves. I could tell the cat had slept on it the next day. It left a small shrew tucked into one corner of the chair. We put up a notice by the mailboxes and also posted the cat’s photograph on Craigslist and Kijiji. It was cold that January and we were living in a state of unknowing as shadows had appeared in my lungs and it was suspected I had metastatic lung disease. Many tests ensued. Then the cat decided to live with us. We named him Winter and somehow it was comforting to have this other life among us. I’d like to think he brought us luck because the shadows mysteriously disappeared and the tests were pretty conclusively negative for cancer. He was—is—a very easy-going animal. He’d curl up by our feet at night and make himself at home in one of the chairs by the woodstove during the day. He turns out to be a hunter, bringing us gifts of little creatures, mostly alive. We’ve managed to save most of them, or at least the ones we find in time. On nights when the coyotes sing, he’ll raise his head from the bed and listen, then return to sleep. His other life, the one before us, was a mystery. People would ask if he liked dogs and we’d answer that we had no idea. (I’m looking these days for the right dog to join our household and have been hopeful that Winter will adapt.) He was lean when he arrived but not emaciated. And when we took him to the vet for shots, the vet agreed with us when we said the cat had obviously been cared for. (The vet also asked us to let him know if we didn’t want to keep Winter because he was very taken with the cat himself.)

This morning a man came to buy a few books from me. We’ve known him casually for years. We’d see him down by the boat dock on Sakinaw Lake and he’d mention reading my books, John’s books, and we’d talk about other stuff too. I thought he was going to a job-site on the lake but it turns out he lives in one of the water-access cabins on the other side of the bay. It’s a few miles from us through dense woods. No roads, which is why he goes back and forth by boat. So as he was leaving, we were talking about animals—we were watching his beautiful Bernese mountain dog race around by the cars—and he said he’d once had a lovely cat that had disappeared, eaten (he thought) by a lynx that was hanging around and that another dog of his had treed at one point. When was this, I wondered. January of 2017 was the reply.

So Winter turns out to be Poncho, late of Sakinaw Lake, and with a previous life that included a trip to Calgary, maybe a tussle with a lynx, a loving family, and an adventure traveling from one remote cabin to our house (kind of remote also) in winter, with coyotes and cougars and other potential hazards for a small-ish young cat. We aren’t going to give him back to you, I told the man, and he laughed and said he completely understood. He called his wife and she was dumbfounded when he said he was standing in our kitchen, holding Poncho. We’ve offered visiting rights, beginning with dinner in a week or two.

It’s good to have the mystery solved. Sort of. But I also remember how his arrival felt like a gift in those dark days of winter nearly 3 years ago. Caring for him took my mind off my own uncertainty. Our uncertainty, because if the shadows had proved to be tumours, then our lives would have changed in ways I don’t really want to think about now. The light is low in the trees and it’s the time of year I can see little silver flashes of Sakinaw Lake from my study. Imagine a cat coming all that way.

redux: waiting and sewing (from November, 2012)

At dinner with friends last week, we learned that coho have been seen in one of the local creeks. The next morning — Saturday — we went to our own Haskins Creek to see if the run we’ve watched for more than twenty years had begun. Not that day, though eagles were around, waiting, and the air was redolent with the promise of fish.

Nor were they in the creek on Monday. Nor today — though when I walked right to the creek mouth, I saw one leap about ten feet off shore, in the lake itself. It was dark green and red, the colours these fish wear in fresh water, when they’re ready to spawn. And farther off, there was a small group of mergansers, also waiting.

I’ve been quilting this week and have finished half of the light blue squares with their elegant spirals; seven of the indigo squares, printed with salmon, have their buttons.  I think the individual elements are coming together nicely. It’s beginning to look more like a quilt than an idea. And working away on it, sewing on the shell buttons which resemble small bright eggs in the bodies of the salmon, I see that the deep red sashing between the squares is like the blood of these fish. Which makes me think that I will quilt small circles in the sashing — the life cycle, from the beginnings (eggs in gravel) to the alevins emerging, the juvenile period in fresh water, the young adults feeding on invertebrates in the ocean itself, their migration back to their home creek where courtship and spawning occurs.

 

redux: “I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

Two things: Autumn means (in part) the return of the coho here on the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula. And today I am feeling gratitude that the health issue of 2016 didn’t end up being what my specialist thought it was. Another thing: apparently the Google ad that pops up on my site is a scam so don’t click it. (WordPress says to click the report button and they’ll investigate…)

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coho.jpg

On the weekend, friends came to dinner and after we’d eaten, just as they were preparing to leave, one friend asked me if I believed in an afterlife, a consciousness after this one. The way he looked at me, I knew that he knew what my answer would be. Not that I have a clear answer or a sense of an afterlife that corresponds with the Christian one I was raised to believe in — though I found myself quite firmly rejecting that Christian belief system when I was ten and spent an afternoon looking at photographs of the liberation of Belsen. I remember asking my parents how a just god could allow such things to happen — the Shoah as well as other events in human history — and they were at a loss to answer. And I knew that the god I had been raised to believe in didn’t — or couldn’t possibly — exist. (Not as I was taught he existed. And in those years, it was clear that god was male.) Because my friend is a poet as well as a commercial fisherman, I knew that he would understand me if I used the language of metaphor and the cycles of nature to try to explain what I thought happened after we die. Every year, about this time, we go to the salmon-bearing creek near us to watch the coho salmon excavate their redds and lay their eggs. They have come so far to do this and they find the creek — a small one, emptying into a long lake eventually draining into the ocean — they were born in. After the females have laid their eggs and the males have fertilized those eggs, the salmon die and eagles, coyotes, bears, wolves, and other animals feed on what’s left of the bodies. To see the live bodies hover in the water where generations of fish have undulated, expelled eggs or milt, died, and then emerged from the gravel to develop into an organism capable of swimming as far as Alaska, only to return again,purposefully and deliberately, is to think of life as everlasting. Not necessarily our own but what outlives us is part of us. We’re part of what goes forever. We’ve done our best to both damage these cycles (I’d like to think we haven’t done it willfully but that’s perhaps generous) and to ensure their vitality and endurance.

This is not a post about religion or dogma. It’s about how we live and how we accommodate death and rebirth. I’m just home from yet another test to determine how long I will continue on the earth in this state — sentient, lively, alert; and the news today was reasonably good — and when I open a file of the work I am currently revising, I see that my own preoccupations have been with consciousness and what it means for some time now. My whole life. And the lives that came before me and those that will continue after me. Fish, faithful dogs, beloved family members, the tiny remnants of birds who’ve hit the windows, friends who departed in joy or in pain…I told my friend I believed in ghosts and that I saw them regularly. I do. And I’m grateful for that.

(from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” (Euclid’s Orchard, 2017)

“I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80

On my desk, folders and envelopes of papers, some of them in pieces – the remains of my grandmother’s life in Alberta, before she met my grandfather and after. She married him in 1920, a widow with 8 children and another buried in the cemetery where her first husband and her younger brother are also buried. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do. My grandmother is in my hands, my body, the way I peg sheets to the line on a summer morning, or chop garlic for my own version of česnečka. I am the mother of sons and a daughter who are her great-grandchildren, though they only know her through a couple of photographs, some stories, a long folk-song of food they hear when I sing her praises: her soup, her striky, her rich perogies, cabbage rolls tender as butter.

 

 

within stories

sea lions.jpg

Stories within stories within stories. That’s the Odyssey. We are reading it aloud, to each other, most evenings by our fire. This translation, by Emily Wilson, is really marvelous. It reads smoothly and naturally. I’d wondered when I bought it how she would convey the long dactylic hexameters of the original text and her choice is iambic pentameter, the meter of English narrative poetry. I enjoyed the postscript to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version in which he discusses at length the strategies he used to try to replicate the formulaic tropes of the poem, part of the legacy of its origins as performance. A translator is always working with equivalencies, I think. I enjoyed too Emily Wilson’s Translator’s Note:

I have taken very seriously the task of understanding the language of the original text as deeply as I can, and working through what Homer maybe have meant in archaic and classical Greece. I have also taken seriously the task of creating a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context.

We read and I notice that we smile a lot. We smile when we recognize a moment, or appreciate an image. When Menelaus is telling Telemachus about the old sea god Proteus of Egypt and how he was advised by the god’s daughter, Eidothea, to surprise the god as he slept, he recounts Eidothea’s description of how to find him:

He goes to take his nap inside the caves.
Around him sleep the clustering seals, the daughters
of lovely Lady Brine. Their breath smells sour
from gray seawater, pungent salty depths.

I remembered traveling the length of Lynn Canal, from Skagway to Juneau, by catamaran, and being told by the skipper that we would pass a sea lion rookery enroute. If we were lucky, and quiet enough, we could get quite close to the rookery. On deck, quiet, we were hit by a wall of odour, sour as old cheese, and there they were, the sea lions, some sleeping, some roaring from the rocks. Was there a god among them? Maybe.