“I’ve lost something and I can’t describe/ what it is” — Kenyatta Rogers

maze1

At the pub on Thursday after a swim at Francis Point, I pulled a little Dover book of insect mazes out of my bag for my grandson to work on while we waited for our food. What’s a maze, he wondered, and we told him it was a kind of labyrinth. His dad had already asked if I still had the book of Greek myths he’d enjoyed as a child because he wanted to read to Arthur about the minotaur (a question had been asked…). So we talked a little about mazes and then he took my pen and helped each insect find its destination or prey in the book. By the time we’d finished our meal, he’d finished the book.

The next morning, he wanted to make his own maze. At Francis Point we’d gathered lots of shells to take home for the wind-chime we’re going to make tomorrow. We have driftwood, the shells from the swimming scallops we ate last Sunday (soaked in cleaner after to get rid of the smell!), and I thought we could use some more shells — clam and oyster. They were in my basket. What about the shells, I suggested. And over the next hour, he created his maze. Every time I looked out the window, he was finding his way up and down the paths the shells made on the patio stones.

What is about shells? A maze? You walk and you meet a dead end. (Try explaining that concept to a 5 year old using his pen to help a beetle find water in a little book.) You try again. What you do is not necessarily the thoughtful meditative process provided by a labyrinth. Labyrinth has in its etymological roots the double-headed axe of Minoan culture, symbol of the Mother Goddess. The Cretan labyrinth was built to contain the Minotaur, half man, half bull, the result of King Minos’s wife Pasiphae’s passion for a bull. The Minotaur fed on human flesh and could not be allowed to roam free. The hero Theseus, aided by Ariadne and her gift of red thread, found his way to the heart of the labyrinth where he killed the Minotaur.

I’ve lost something and I can’t describe
what it is

I think of the spirals I stitch into my quilts as symbols of the labyrinth. I sew, I think, I attempt what Carl Jung described as a reconciliation between my inner world and the external world. What’s paradoxical is that I begin as a way of dealing with stress, at the centre of the spiral, the heart of the labyrinth, securing my place with a knot and then following the path of the thread outward. It feels intensely meditative to me. In the past 19 months, sewing my spirals has been a curious solace. I wasn’t sure what I hoped for but something, something called.

the rule is, put your right hand out
lay it on the wall, and follow

My grandson stood on the patio, trying one way, then another. Watching him, I was watching myself in the darkness, feeling my way down the stairs in winter, the quilts waiting in their basket for my thread, the red thread, the white, the empty space waiting to be filled.

beginning

Note: the lines of poetry are Kenyatta Rogers’, from his poem “Labyrinth:.

“old pleasures abundant”

leaving

This post should be accompanied by images of the most luscious vanilla ice cream in waffle bowls, with blueberries, six bowls, with four adults and two children eating under the leafy pergola. It should be accompanied by their sounds of pleasure as they ate, and then the sound of the screen door opening as Forrest went to the freezer to bring out the container so we could all have second helpings. I think it was the best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever eaten. I made it using my new KitchenAid attachment, mixing 4 ingredients–heavy cream, light cream, sugar, and vanilla bean paste– and then letting the attachment do the rest. I’m wondering why I waited this long to order the attachment because I knew ice cream made this way would be sensational. When John and I stayed with Anik and Walter in Amsterdam in 2010, Anik made pear ice cream the same way and it was heavenly. I’ve found a recipe using caramelized pears and will make it as soon as late summer pears are available. It was Anik who gave us the gift of Robert Bly’s Turkish Pears in August, the edition so beautifully designed and printed by Gaylord Schanilec at Midnight Paper Sales in 2005, and maybe she knew something then that I had to find out, in time:

Sometimes a poem has her own husband
And children, her nooks and gardens and kitchens,
Her stairs, and those sweet-armed serving boys
Who carry veal in shiny copper pans.
Some poems do give plebeian sweets
Tastier than the chocolates French diners
Eat at evening, and old pleasures abundant
As Turkish pears in the garden in August.

This post should be accompanied by images but I didn’t think to record the results. This morning I made two more batches, one sweetened with maple sugar and maple syrup in equal amounts, and one studded with blackberries. The second batch didn’t thicken as it should have because it seems that the freezer container you use for churning doesn’t stay cold enough for two batches made in quick succession. That’s fine. I’m learning. But it’s in the freezer now and I think it will just be a harder ice cream to scoop out this evening. A scoop of each flavour, with blueberries or blackberries, in waffle bowls for those who want them or in ceramics for those, like me, who prefer their ice cream that way: a summer dessert on the last day of July.

redux: Bluets, or the radiant days

Note: remarkably everyone else in the house is still sleeping (it’s 7:26 as I type this) and I’ve been up for more than an hour, sitting on the cool deck, listening to loons. All the summers were in that call, all the mornings. Yesterday we swam at Trail Bay, the little boys looking for crabs, barnacles, one of them filling his hat with stones. Twenty minutes ago a dragonfly paused on the iron fish on the table where I sat and I was back at Nicola Lake, last summer, in heat, looking at bluets.

board

A little more than a week ago, we spent time with part of our family in country we’ve loved forever. We stayed at Lac Le Jeune and we ventured out each day to swim in Nicola Lake (where we camped when our children were young, every summer, and where I began to realize that strands of landscape, history, and the scales of pine cones could be bound together as essays, the ones I first wrote in Red Laredo Boots and the ones I am still writing) or to explore the old part of Kamloops and swim (briefly) in the Thompson River. We would have done yet another familiar thing—lunch at the Quilchena Hotel, then a poke through the old store there, where I did finally buy the boots longed for in the title essay of Red Laredo Boots after receiving exactly the amount they cost in payment for another essay in the collection—but the hotel is closed because of the pandemic.

boots

At Nicola Lake, I was swimming along the ropes delineating the safe area, when I noticed that every cork bobber had damselflies on it. Sometimes two, or more. They were so delicate and beautiful, the blue of them not quite the colour of the sky and certainly not the tea-colour of the lake, but an ethereal aqua. I went back to shore and told John. So he swam out to see them too. At times like that, I realize how little I know about bugs in general and damselflies in particular. The field-guide I had with me told me that these were almost certainly American bluets. That this genus, Enallagma, contains most of the damselflies in our area. that identification of the seven species we’re most likely to see isn’t easy for someone like me, a non-specialist, and that the mating damselflies remain connected until the female oviposits on the stems of the rushes and the resulting offspring hang around the submerged plant matter for the small invertebrates swimming near.

two

Do I need to know the species? No. The names of the possibilities are like a summer poem: Northern Bluet, Tule Bluet, Boreal Bluet, Familiar Bluet, Alkali Bluet, Marsh Bluet, Hagen’s Bluet. Knowing this, and that they’ve been around for 250 million years, and that they graced the cork bobbers while I swam, looking back at my own beautiful family on the shore, was enough. And while we swam and looked at bluets, an archaeological team was walking the sand, in search of remnants of tool production, was measuring the remains of kikuli depressions in the grass between the change rooms and the beach, and an eagle kept passing over the area, back and forth, flying so low I could see its empty beak. A boy stretched out in grass at a marmot hole and the air was dry and fragrant with pine sap. For a moment I couldn’t tell if the boy in the water with the boogie board was my grandson or his father, 35 years ago, if the girl stretched out on a towel was my granddaughter or her aunty, also blond and eager to swim, whether the young woman alone under the pine was the mother of my grandchildren or myself, longing for a quiet moment to think and remember. Boreal Blue, Familiar Bluet, stitching the years together.

cristen

“the number one animal in my book of fascinating creatures.”

morning table

Overheard, after we saw a snake in the compost box: I’ve already seen the number one animal in my book of fascinating creatures.

Observed by Grandad John: This is probably the first time the term “alluvial fan” has been used for a sand construction at this lake. (I’m making the Nile, the 5 year old announced.)

3 year old’s assessment of spot prawns dipped in garlic butter: I like them, and I don’t like them.

1st book brought to me in my bed in the morning, to be read before breakfast of pancakes and sausages under the vines: When I Was Young in the Mountains.

redux: “We could almost smell the Cheremosh River.”

Note: in an hour we’ll head down the Coast to do a few errands before we pick up our Ottawa family at the ferry. We’ll take two vehicles so they can have one, the car seats already waiting in the back seat. A year ago they were here and we made varenyky. This time too! And I’ve left the note at the end of the extract from the essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”, but am happy now to tell you that it will be published as part of Blue Portugal by the University of Alberta Press next spring.

______________

cupani

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

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

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

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

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

the party’s over

the party's over

Last night I dreamed it was my job to vacuum all the dead needles that have rained down from the big Douglas firs around our house. Never have they shed like this before. There are small drifts of them everywhere. And it was my job to vacuum them. I didn’t know where to begin.

the party’s over
we had a good time
we danced on the tables midnight til dawn
til all the time was up and the good stuff gone

Do you ever have the feeling that the party’s over? This morning, swimming, I thought of Eliza Gilkyson’s song of that title, from her album Beautiful World. I thought of all the fires in our province, and down the Coast as far as Mexico. My favourite places–Lytton, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge, Walhachin, the communities on Highway 97 north (Flat Lake, Canim Lake, Lone Butte) and south, east (Westwold, Monte Creek, Sicamous)–threatened or burning or gone.

we burned all the kindling, passed the bottle around
watched the last coals dwindling
and the ice melting down

We can’t say we didn’t know. Scientists have been reporting the climate crisis for years now. Crisis, emergency: we’re here. A few weeks ago, our thermometer hit 39 degrees. Friends up the highway said theirs recorded over 40. This is the temperate west coast, home of rainforests, an abundance of water, salmon. Our gooseberries cooked on the bush. The Douglas firs began to turn orange, not so much from drought–they can withstand some dry spells–but from the sustained heat. Billions of tidal creatures died on the shores in the heatwave.

the party’s over, we had a blast
brought in the lawyers to cover our ass
left a note for the children to clean up the mess
the party’s over

I dreamed it was my job to vacuum the fir needles and I didn’t know where to begin.

talk to me of Mendocino

wild coast

Some days a song will find a way into your heart, into your soul, into everything you do, so that as you choose cheeses at the grocery store in Sechelt, you are humming it, in the library a woman looks at you in surprise because you’re singing quietly in the fiction stacks, and as you watered the tomatoes, late because of leaving early for errands down the Coast, you were singing not quite as quietly, moving the hose from one plant to the next.

In 2013, my mathematician-son spent the fall term at Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute as part of a cohort working on optimal transport. Why not come for a few days, he asked. His wife Cristen flew down several times — they had just bought a house in Edmonton and moved into it as he was packing his bags for Berkeley — and at one point Cristen’s parents went too. And in November we drove down the Interstate 5 as far as Portland and then headed over to the Pacific Coast Highway, a route we’d taken earlier in our separate lives, remembering it slightly differently, and eager to revisit. At one point I heard one of my favourite songs on the radio, Kate and Anna McGarrigle singing “Talk to Me of Mendocino”, and I was taken back to an earlier trip, in, oh, 1976, driving that coast highway with two friends. We went to Berkeley on that trip too and camped at Big Sur and I felt I was seeing a world so filled with promise that I remember crying in my bunk at night (we’d borrowed my dad’s little camper for the trip).

We drove, in 2013, through a storm and spent our second night of travel in Coos Bay where I watched a YouTube of the McGarrigles, looking out the window at huge raindrops coursing down the glass.

And it’s on to Southbend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remain

We didn’t end up in Mendocino. Tired of driving through rain and wind on the Oregon Coast, we turned off to Ferndale instead. But the song was in my mind and I kept humming it as we drove to Berkeley.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”

Today, now, at home, I am remembering that trip, remembering how the woman I was then was also the girl 35 years earlier, longing and yearning, though I couldn’t have said what for exactly. When I was 21, it might have been love. When I was nearly 60, I wasn’t yearning for love but for some sense that everything I’d done with my life mattered; and I was yearning to see my son, who felt very far away, though by the time we were in Ferndale, it was only 262 miles, and we pulled into our little rented flat in time for an afternoon drink on the tiny balcony.

berkeley balcony

Brendan told us that Cristen was pregnant and the whole visit felt celebratory in the way a week can be when you know everything is changing and you are looking forward to stepping into a new world.

And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more
 
Talk to me of Mendocino, talk to me of Coos Bay, of Edmonton, of Victoria, of Ottawa and the Madawaska River, talk to me of any place in summer, with ocean winds and water to swim in, but don’t talk to me of forest fires and water shortages, I am tired to death of heat and drought, I am tired to death of the lonely places we were driven to during the last 18 months, the sad nights, the quiet (though I love quiet), the masks, the world’s terror which was also ours. Mine. Talk to me of  the campfire version of the song on the McGarrigle Hour, the cd I was listening to this morning when the song entered my system as sweetly as cool air on a warm evening. Talk to me, won’t you.

watching the young queen

This is the summer when I realize how much I don’t know. Don’t know about boat engines, don’t know about bees. I’m trying to learn about both. The boat engines I’ll save for another day. But the bees? One species at a time, slow and steady.

Every morning I sit here with my coffee.

red chair

And every morning the oregano is lively with Bombus species, sometimes 4 or 5 quite distinct ones. If I pay attention, I see that there are slightly different behaviours at play. There are bees who will tolerate another coming to the blossoms they are at work on. A single head of flowering oregano might host 3 bees at a time.

But yesterday morning I saw a species I’d never seen before. It was very black, with a yellow head resembling the Corinthian helmets worn by hoplites, or citizen-soldiers, in ancient Greece. It had a single thin ring of yellow right at the end of its posterior. I posted a quick (and blurry) photograph on Twitter, tagging a woman who knows about bees, and learned it was Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced bumblebee.

bombus voznesenskii

One of the bees was nearly twice the size of the other and it was almost certainly a young queen. She tolerated no other bees on her blossoms, not even the smaller one of her own species. I watched her forage, hoping she would discover the new umbels of tomato flowers, replacing the ones that burned off during the terrible heat of two weeks ago. This species is an important pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes apparently. I watched but the oregano was too luscious to leave. She made her methodical way from flower to flower, her pollen baskets golden.

I’d like to at least learn the species I see when I sit in my red chair with my coffee. There are honey bees around too. I’ll try to figure them out as well. I remember loving book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics, devoted entirely to bees:

Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now
Take up the tale.

Over the years, I’ve let the oregano and lemon balm self-seed and spread. My careless style of living, as gardener at least, means that there are bees at every turn. Listen! The humming is beautiful. Drawn by scent and memory, they come to the herbs, the lemon blossoms, the flowering tomatoes, and maybe by now they recognize me too, the woman who scoops up the fallen ones, placing them carefully on geraniums, hoping they’ll recover.

And let green cassias and far-scented thymes,
And savory with its heavy-laden breath
Bloom round about…

bombus voznesenskii2

That young queen might be the only one to overwinter after the first frost. I don’t know where the nest is but maybe that will be the logical step in this process, following the bees with their laden pollen baskets, wishing I had wings myself.

I will trace me back
To its prime source the story’s tangled thread,
And thence unravel.

Easthope

easthope

When I begin to write something long–an essay, a novella, a novel–I find myself gathering materials without any clear idea of how they’ll be used. It’s like textile work in some ways, like quilting, or at least the way I quilt. Assorted fabric, maybe some linen, some French cottons, old jeans, a scrap of dupioni silk; buttons; a memory of a quilt in a window in a dusty town passed through 20 years ago where a particularly lovely yellow had been paired with soft blue. A story. A scribbler (remember them?) in a tiny museum in Egmont in which a group of children from Doriston where the school population fluctuated between 8 and 12 wrote about their community in the early 1930s. An Easthope engine. The city of Lviv. So ok. I began to write about Lviv almost exactly a month ago, writing a scene in which two women connect, one in Ukraine and one in a small coastal community, I thought perhaps Sooke on Vancouver Island. I wrote some pages and then I didn’t know how to continue. I didn’t have the right mass, the right elements, not enough of them, though I didn’t know how many that might be.

Yesterday we took a friend to lunch in Egmont, stopping first at the Heritage Centre so he could see the collection. Our son Forrest, a museum curator and historian, once said the little museum bats well above average for its exhibits and focus. Our friend agreed. I did what I always do which is to turn the pages of the Doriston scribbler in its protective mylar, entranced by the careful work of the children who wrote about their community, its natural history, its celebrations, its importance. I asked the man working in the museum if I could arrange to have it scanned and he was so enthusiastic. I confessed I am a writer and somehow I’d like to do something with the document although I wasn’t sure what or how. Then I looked at some more things and one of them was the green Easthope engine. If you live in a fishing community and you know older fishermen, you’ve heard stories about Easthopes. They were fairly economical, fairly reliable, and were common sources of power for fishing vessels in the 1920s and 30s. Looking at the Easthope yesterday, I felt that old familiar shimmer. Remember this, take account of this. It’s important.

If you’d asked me a few days ago what Lviv, Doriston, a green Easthope engine in the Egmont Heritage Centre have in common, I’d have rolled my eyes. Nothing. But somehow they do. Somehow I will find out by writing about them singly and together and will figure out a pattern, a coherence. When I came home from our lunch on a deck overlooking Jervis Inlet, I opened the file I began a month ago, the one with the two women, one in Lviv and one in a small coastal community that is no longer Sooke but Egmont, and because the file only had a note on it and no title, I typed a title that gives me such excitement and anticipation: Easthope. (And yes, mine was that voice in the dark last night, asking John if he was asleep. Not quite, he replied drowsily. Can you describe how single and two cylinder engines work, kind of simply? Tomorrow, was the answer.)

the light is our clock

bums up

I was thinking this morning of all the summers we have lived here, the damp ones, the hot ones, the ones where our house was simply a shell, window openings without glass, the busy ones, the quiet ones, and I found myself re-reading an essay written a few years ago for Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book. “Love Song” tries to catch those summers like gossamer and keep them preserved in a kind of poetry. I read it and remember the summers and think of everything I didn’t know. The names of the bees, the bird making a last call beyond the garden (one note like a varied thrush but a little fuzzier, a little raspier), where the snakes have gone that it’s been weeks since I’ve seen one sunning itself under the Japanese maple.

The light is our clock. We talk quietly in bed, listening to the birds. In the night there were loons and we’re glad they’ve chosen the bay below us for nesting. One of us remembers a summer when the house was filled with children. Another remembers waking in the tent to face a day of house-building, framing and lifting walls, running out of nails, measuring and measuring again the bird’s mouth notches so that the rafters would rest snugly on the wall plates. One baby slept in a basket on the sleeping bag in the blue tent. (The others were still unborn, waiting to be dreamed into being.) One baby slept in a crib in the new wing of the house, in a room next to the one with bunk-beds, while I walked in the garden in a cotton nightdress, coaxing the peas to attach themselves to wire. Three children didn’t sleep as the sun set later and later, long past bedtime, and we made campfires in rings of stones, sat on a cedar plank while the smoke rose to the stars. In the garden, the sun-dial (Grow Old With Me, The Best is Yet to Come) was smothered by lemon balm.

There’s a moment when the bees come. I went out to the deck for my bathing suit at 8:15 and the oregano was moving slightly in a breeze but the only bee to be seen was a dead one on the the surface of the deck, lying on its back with its legs folded neatly. When we returned just after nine, the blossoms were dense with bees, a couple of dozen. Some of them seemed to be coming from a different nest because their trajectory was right over our heads as we sat at the table with our coffee. A big one, a queen perhaps, arrived and dominated one area of the oregano, her legs heavy with pollen. There are at least 3 species, maybe 4. Maybe more. Only one entered the orange nasturtium, backing out with her pollen baskets full.

I’ve gathered enough chairs for everyone to sit, taken the summer plates out of their box, painted with figs and dark grapes. The fig tree a seedling, the grapes sending out first tendrils. Wind-chimes are making music of the air

I’m thinking ahead now as well as backwards. In a few weeks the house will be full of children, grown ones and young ones. Even John and I are children, though our parents are dead. In the night when I can’t sleep, I try to dream myself to my childhood, the long days in the Ross Bay Cemetery running my fingers over the worn inscriptions or else watching for muskrats in the slough behind the house we lived in on Matsqui prairie. How can we contain it all?