“…it becomes the story I am following.”

My new book, a novella, is due out later this month. The Weight of the Heart, published by Palimpsest Press, is at the printer as I write. This is always an exciting moment for a writer and even though this is my 14th title, I am looking forward to holding the actual book in my hand. In a pandemic, there’s not the usual opportunity to launch the book with an actual party, reading from it, meeting and hugging the well-wishers who always come out to help celebrate the book. I know people are doing this virtually and if there’s a chance to do that, I will too. But I am not a techie and can’t imagine zooming or however this is done.

So yes, it’s at the printer as I write. And here, at High Ground, where we have our own printing presses, it’s been a tradition to print a small keepsake to hand out at readings and to mail to far-flung friends who I know are there in spirit if not in person. John is out in our printshop now, putting the keepsake through the press a second time for the second colour, a beautiful blue.  I went out to see how it was going and found him locking up the text:

locking up

The press is already inked and ready to go.

inking
this is a 12×18 Chandler and Price Old Style, built in 1894

Here’s the proof:

proof!

This is something you could tuck into your copy, use as a bookmark, put by your desk. For those of you who buy a copy of The Weight of the Heart, I’ll happily mail you a keepsake, as long as I have them to share (their numbers are limited because of the nature of letterpress printing…). I urge you to support your local bookseller if possible. Ours, Bev Shaw of Talewind Books in Sechelt, will have copies, as will many book stores in Canada. You can order from the publisher too.

This is a book about rivers and canyons and dry Interior space in British Columbia. Its muses are Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. Its protagonist is young and troubled but she is also bold. She sees the landscape as a series of texts and she hears the voices of cranes, water systems, coyotes singing their hearts out. Here’s a passage as a virtual keepsake:

I have a section planned that will outline their expectations. Sheila’s on the train. Ethel’s in the car as she and Wallace drove to Lac Le Jeune for a week’s fishing. The bull pine imprinted on Ethel’s memory. The sound of ducks in the early morning. Sheila watches the river, the one she has known in New Westminster, its broad body of water surging towards its estuary. Through tunnels, along the narrow ridges, her head against the window, hearing the rhythm of the rail joints, the friction as the train followed the curve of the hills approaching Ashcroft, and the unknown. In the warmth of the car near Savona, Ethel is murmuring to her husband, wondering would they use a sedge pattern, a leech, in the weed patches fringing the lake they were heading to? He pats her knee, anticipating the days in the clinkerbuilt boat waiting for them, the drinks on the verandah of their cabin at dusk, the sound of cranes across the heavens. She doesn’t know she is thinking ahead, in her body, in the memory her muscles will hold of the rod, the line skittering on the calm water, until it becomes the story I am following.

57 days

arriving home

I found my datebook buried under a pile of stuff on the dining table and I looked back to see how long ago it was that we began to live as we now do. 57 days ago we realized that it was no longer safe nor possible to move around our community as we were accustomed to doing. 60 days ago we at a quiet dinner at the Backeddy Pub, the tables well-spaced as they always are, and I remember realizing it was probably the last time in, oh, how long? (60 days.) I remember I had a second large glass of wine because who knew when the next time would be? (A glass of wine in a place overlooking Jervis Inlet, I mean, with the possibility of seeing whales, because of course I can have wine any time I like at home. And do.) We realized at dinner that we’d probably had our last swim for who knows how long. The lake near us is warming up and yes, we’ll swim there, but a thrice-weekly swim in the local pool, with its precise measurements to let you know how far you were swimming and its many clocks to tell you how long, coming out of the pool with the knowledge that you’ve done 50 lengths (at 20 meters each) in 47 or 52 minutes, well, it’s been 60 days.

John and I have both been writing. He’s working away on the memoir we’re supposed to be writing together, a record of house-building, building a life together, rooms being planned and framed and built as children were born to fill them, and then leave them. Somehow my own work on this has been put aside because I’ve been pulled into something else. I’ll return to the house and how we built it but right now I’m finding my way into the dark days of the Spanish flu pandemic and how it affected my grandmother and her young family. Somehow it’s taken on a special urgency as I live through the current pandemic. I also completed the final work on a collection of essays in winter and have been weighing and pondering the next step. It’s quiet work, lyric essays, and I don’t exactly have a line-up of interested parties at my door. But then no one is coming to the door. I’d be nervous if anyone did.

Things were to have happened in the 60 days. There was to have been a driving trip to Edmonton to see our family there. Another long weekend just coming up when we’d have been in Ottawa, helping to tear apart a garden shed to built a new one, a book launch to plan for The Weight of the Heart. I know people are doing these things in virtual time and space these days and I’ve gotten used to WhatsApp reading dates with grandchildren. I treasure those, even when faces break up or freeze. When a phone is somehow turned at the other end so you see a face, in repose, listening, but upside down. But Zoom? I can’t even begin.

This morning, in fine rain, we drove down to Sechelt to do the weekly grocery shopping, well-equipped with masks, gloves, sanitizer. I picked up a book I’d ordered — Square-Haunting by Francesca Wade — and that made me remember we’d hoped to be going to London in the fall for a few days of theatre and museums before flying to Czech Republic where a collection of John’s poems, in translation, is being published in Ostrava. In London we stay near Mecklenburgh Square, the locus of Wade’s book, and we wander in St. George’s Gardens, with its old ghosts and young children walking with their parents. These things will wait for us, I know, and I heard someone say that rather than think of ourselves as stuck at home, we should say that we are safe at home. And I am. We are. In one of those ironies you might not even notice if you were swimming three times a week and driving to Edmonton, flying to Ottawa, the flowers have never been lovelier. The dogwoods are more exuberant than I’ve ever seen them. The crabapple below the vegetable garden looks like a debutante in rich pink. And the wisteria! Returning home to see it framing the patio, I didn’t care about days. Standing underneath is to be deep in the middle of a bee opera. Allegretto, allegro, prestissimo. It’s music you listen to as long as it lets you, as long as it lasts.

 

“…inside the embrace”

mum on gonzales beach

The years pass. The days of commemoration return. It’s been ten years since my mother died but I think of her daily. There was a time when I thought the most important thing on earth was to find out where she came from. She was a foundling, given up at birth, and had only a few clues to her biological parents. What did I think? If I found them, somehow she would be given a new life, in which she was cherished by parents instead of cared for by a foster mother who seemed determined to keep her in her place: a child unwanted and given away? I did think this. In a rather circuitous way, I found the man whom I believe was her biological father. I share DNA with his grandsons, his great-nephew. I’ve learned some things about him and one of those things is that he wasn’t interested in knowing about the child he’d conceived with a girl who was not his wife. I’m less interested in pursuing her origins now that I know it had nothing to do with who she was, only how she got to be in the world.

In this photograph, my mother is playing with her first child, my older brother Dan. It must be summer of 1952. They lived in a cottage above Gonzales Beach in Victoria. She told me many times how happy she was there. My father was away a lot. He was in the Navy and he’d be at sea for months at a time. Not long after this photograph was taken, my father was transferred to Halifax, where my mother had grown up and where my parents met in 1950. They went by train to Nova Scotia, stopping to see my grandparents in Beverly, so that they could meet Dan. Two years in Halifax — my brother Steve was born there — and then back to Victoria, where I was born. A little more than a year later, my younger brother Gordon was born, completing the family my mother always wanted. When I was 6 years old, we lived not far from Gonzales Beach and my father was away again, for 3 months. As she anticipated his return, I think I saw my mother as a person, separate from me, for the first time. She’d bought a new coat for the occasion, a coat that hangs in my closet and still smells faintly of her.

When we returned that day from CFB Esquimalt with the stranger who was our father to our house on Eberts Street, my parents went into their bedroom and we were asked to leave them alone. I imagined my mother twirling for my father in her new suit and then the two of them hugging on the bed. Her Harris Tweed coat was hanging in the front closet, and I went in, closed the door from the inside, and put my arms into its satin-lined sleeves where I could smell my mother’s Avon underarm deodorant mingling with the wool. I was inside her coat, inside the embrace she was now sharing with my father. I was my mother, hidden from her children, the collar of the tweed coat rough against my neck.

— from “Tokens”, Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

And later: I’ve just remembered this photograph of me with my own children and love how it echoes the one of my mum and Dan.

postcard 2

“My path is full of petals.”

I was lying in bed, before 7 a.m., reading (The Mirror and the Light), when I heard two things. The first was skittering in the rose canes by the window, followed by more skittering in the narrow tunnels of the metal roof. For years I wasn’t sure what animal made these sounds and then about 4 years ago, I began to see the weasels regularly. In May. Mornings were best. A couple of times one would stop in its tracks as it used the rose canes to travel along the wall of house, peering at me as I lay in my bed. Another time I saw one race into one of the roof tunnels and then come out again. I wouldn’t have believed that an animal of its size could do that, slip into an opening as narrow as those forming part of the metal roof structure. But I saw one do it, in search of mice. One morning there was a terrific noise from the pair of robins nesting along the beam carrying wisteria across our patio from the woodshed to the house and then silence. When I went out, the robins were gone and so were their eggs. It was the same day that I saw this fellow on my laundry stoop:

weasel

So you’re back, I thought to myself, and continued to read. Continued to read until the song of the orange-crowned warbler in the arbutus blossoms made me go out to the deck to listen more closely. The honeyed scent of the blooms, drifts of cherry blossoms on the grass where the young deer was feeding yesterday.

Some days it’s lonely, waiting out a pandemic. I have my husband to talk to and there’s the telephone. But proximity: that’s what I miss some days. And that’s when I need to pay more attention because the place where I live is anything but empty. Look out a window and see hummingbirds darting from flower to flower. The mason bees who are everywhere right now, filling the houses we’ve made for them. Lizards in the rocks by the back door. Yesterday a snake curling around the hoses in the vegetable garden. They’re good company.

At breakfast, John was looking out the sliding doors facing west and saw an elk crossing the orchard, the one we worked at for so long but finally abandoned (you can read about that in Euclid’s Orchard…), and I went out to try to take a photograph. It was party hidden in the trees, though I could see enough antler to realize it was a bull. And there’s a story. What bull elk is wandering alone in our woods this time of year? Probably not a harem master, not yet. But maybe we’ll hear him the fall, bugling in the woods as he faces off against another bull. This morning though? He was was happy just to drag down branches and eat. I could smell him from the deck, ripe as a horse.

bull in orchard

There’s talk of lifting some of the restrictions to shelter in place. Open the doors and see what comes in! A weasel, an elk with his mouth full of green leaves, a warbler singing his way through the morning. I think of Du Fu, anticipating visits after a time alone.

North of me, south of me, spring is in flood,
Day after day I have seen only gulls….
My path is full of petals — I have swept it for no others.
My thatch gate has been closed — but opens now for you.
It’s a long way to the market, I can offer you little —
Yet here in my cottage there is old wine for our cups.
Shall we summon my elderly neighbour to join us,
Call him through the fence, and pour the jar dry?

“When I was young in the mountains, we listened to frogs sing at dusk…”

may 7

Yesterday our Premier outlined some ways the current lockdown will end. I didn’t hear him on the radio because I was reading a story to my grandsons in Ottawa. They sat with their father on the couch in their living room and I sat in a chair upstairs (near the router because our internet connection is so capricious) and I read them When I Was Young in the Mountains (by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode).

All afternoon I’d worked in the garden. The beans needed planting out and before I did that, I had to transplant dozens of little kale seedlings around the supports. (I could just dig them under but I hate waste and this kale has evolved in my garden over a couple of decades to be exactly the right plant for my soil and our weather.) I knew the Premier would be announcing some easing of restrictions and I wondered how I’d feel about it. I’ve grown used to the solitude, which—to be honest—isn’t so different from the life we live here for the most part. I miss dinners with friends but do I want to clear the kitchen table, covered with papers and sewing stuff (we’ve been eating outside or else by the fire), and do I want to have to feel anxious about coughs, hugs? Do I? I’m not sure yet.

may 7 3

When I was reading to the little boys, I annotated the story just a little. Grandfather became Grandad (their name for John, because it was their father’s name for his grandfather) and Grandmother became Grandma. I could see them peering at the illustrations I placed in front of my phone’s camera. They liked the snake that Grandma threatens with a garden hoe and they liked the big galvanized tub ready for their baths. Your dad had his baths in our big tub when we were building our house, I told them. When you come next, you can have a bath it it to see what it’s like. I hope it will be this summer but at this point, who knows.

may 7 2

I don’t know if I want to go back. Back to the careless days of shopping in crowded stores, of concerts with close seating, of airports. I miss my children and their children but I’m not ready to leave home yet for anything other than the weekly grocery run. I loved reading the story to the boys. The grandparents in a house that looks a lot like our house, isolated on its hill with the windows lit in the dusk. The sound of frogs. Stars bright in the night sky. The grandfather sharpens pencils for the children on the porch of the house while the grandmother shells peas. (I have just mailed homemade paper dolls, trucks, and stegosauruses to my grandchildren, along with saved bean seed for their gardens.) The young girl who is the narrator of the story is of course the author, remembering. The last illustration shows her sitting on some wooden steps with an open book on her knees. It’s the story of her life with her grandparents in the safety of their home and it’s the story we are all thinking about as we look back to our own childhoods. Where is the tale of the virus that took the lives of the grandparents in the care-homes, the health care workers working long shifts to keep people alive, the dying victims without the comfort of their families? I don’t want to share this story with my grandchildren, not yet. When I was young in the mountains….I never wanted to go anywhere else in the world. This morning a frog was singing loudly in the garden as I walked around to see what needs to be done. There’s enough to keep me here for years.

may 7 4

“I go to meet it”

deer, looking out

Some mornings I wake and forget that we are living through a pandemic. I lie in my bed, listening to birds that never sounded as sweet as they do this spring. Some mornings I wonder when we might feel that we are safe again. Will we? Will the world return to its old paradigm? Next month? The fall? Never, I suppose. I don’t think it should. We are not the same, are we? The news we’ve followed, the numbers, the charts, the models — those have guided us, like cryptic maps, to a place of no return. We need to abandon some of our old habits and expectations and we’ll need new ways to do things.

My daughter Angelica sent this photograph today, an image from her walk along Dallas Road in Victoria. When I was a child, you never saw deer in the city of Victoria. Out on Saanich peninsula, yes. I’d ride my horse on Island View Beach and there’d be deer nosing the tide line, nibbling the wind-shaped trees beyond. In the old orchards near the house where I spent my teen years, there were deer feeding on ancient wrinkled apples in fall. This photograph struck me as emblematic somehow. The new world, where deer claim the cemetery where I rode my bike, where peahens strut along the city streets, and where coyotes boldly walk the main thoroughfares in many major urban centres (though not yet on Vancouver Island).  For those of you who don’t know Victoria, Dallas Road follows the shoreline along the city’s southern boundary. On a clear day you can see the Olympic Peninsula on the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hurricane Ridge, and the lights of Port Angeles at night.

In early January I bought a small datebook for 2020 and until the second week in March, its pages are filled with scribbled notes of appointments, meals with friends, planned trips to Vancouver. The last actual thing is swimming on March 14, 1.3 kilometers, and I remember the lifeguard assuring us that the pool would remain open for the foreseeable future. It was (at that point) deemed “safe”. What is safe anymore? The glove-box of our car holds sanitizer, masks, single-use gloves.

Yet the days are not without beauty or utility. There are lovely things that happen. My grandchildren call on WhatsApp. I lie on my bed (because it’s close to the modem; otherwise the video connection is erratic) and read them stories. They tell me about frogs in the ravine near where they live, and a porcupine they watched waddle along the path, and they chant We want buttercrunch, we want buttercrunch. This morning I made a double batch to send to three cities where those I love more than anything live their own modified lives. Life goes on, some of it the same (a gin and tonic on a deck in Ottawa, in sunlight; the visit to the frogs in Mill Creek Ravine; walks along Dallas Road), and some of it still working itself out. One grandson in Ottawa told me about the ambulance video he’d seen (suddenly ambulances are everywhere!) and the truck that vacuumed out the storm drains.

We’re adapting. We didn’t want to. I’d rather be swimming those 1.3 kilometers three times a week and I’d rather be setting my table for a group of friends for a dinner stretching into the darkness of these spring evenings when owls would call as we walked our guests out to their cars at midnight. John was anticipating (with some anxiety but also with relief) hip surgery about now. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But this is what is. What we have. And we are privileged to have the safety we do have, the good food, the bottles of wine from Wild Goose in Okanagan Falls delivered to our door. (Or not quite to our door but close enough.)

The last few nights I’ve up for a couple of hours, not because of insomnia but because I’ve begun a piece of writing that calls me, through the darkness, the anxiety, the little knot of fear that is hard to shake, calls me to pay attention to details about two shacks on the Red Deer River during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The shacks held members of my family, one of them unknown to even my father before he died in 2009, and the others known but never talked about. They died in such sad circumstances and what happened afterwards was unimaginable at first to those left behind. Here I am, though, able to sit at my desk with my desk lamp glowing in the dark. I began the research for this before the virus changed our daily lives and now I have to acknowledge that I feel as though I’ve given a sacred task. Maybe that’s why the photograph of the deer feels so potent to me.

When I tidied my desk a week or two ago, getting ready to really plunge into writing after a couple of months of gathering, accumulating, thinking about the materials at hand, I found a copy of Gary Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems tucked under something else. I’ve long considered him a guide, having discovered his work when I was 18. I held the book in my hands and it fell open to this:

How Poetry Comes To Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

The Weight of the Heart

My novella, The Weight of the Heart, is now at the printer. It’s available for pre-order here. On the one hand, publishing a book in the midst of a lockdown due to a global pandemic is perhaps unfortunate; on the other hand, people are reading and why not this book? It will take you deep into the interior of Canada’s western province as well as to Sombrio where you will roast potatoes in the coals of a cedar fire and collect salt from exposed rock for the potatoes, you’ll eat oysters fresh from their shells, you will be in good company (a thoughtful young narrator, Isabel, and her muses Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The painter Margaret Peterson has a cameo), and you’ll hear coyotes, watch bighorn sheep mate, and you’ll stop for ice-cream at the old Pavilion store before it burned. There’s a newborn Appaloosa filly to stroke and rattlesnakes to avoid. Isabel finds an old pair of cowboy boots at a thrift store in Kamloops and if you’re lucky, you might find a pair too.

Kishkan COVER 72dpi_RGB

I thought, our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers? Thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of cartographic Morse code: dash, dot, long dash for countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about what happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depressions where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current? Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds? A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and might have been changed forever by it?

The river lay still in the sunlight, its thousand pools and eddies alive under its silver skin.