imagine

…passing through this arch in a boat, after the nesting area where hundreds, thousands of pelicans, yellow-legged gulls, blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds (some of the males still sporting their red gular pouches), imagine hearing and smelling the 700 California sea lions before you saw them, on rocks and in water,

and then imagine the beach where you arrived to swim, eat ceviche on tacos, the blue sky your umbrella.

beautiful bones in the dry air

Yesterday, a morning at the Museo de la Ballenas here in La Paz, a wonderful young man taking us through the timeline of proto whales and their descendants, the contemporary cetaceans. You can touch, he assured me as I reached out my hand to compare it to the beautiful bones in the dry air. So much to look at, to think about, and the memory of the humpbacks we saw breaching off the other coast on (was it) Saturday morning. On our way to the Malecon for lunch, the tiniest hummingbird, a Costa’s, I think, hovering at eye level in the bougainvillea.

La Paz

Yesterday, a swim at El Tecolote. Today, a visit to a ravishing exhibit of folk art (or pieces in that tradition) at the Museo de Arte de Baja California Sur, followed by lunch on the Malecon. Because the bus we needed to take back to our hotel never arrived (or maybe we were waiting on the wrong street), we trudged back, hot and tired, grateful for the pool and cold beer on our little courtyard.


this was the road

the road

This was the road we took to the long beach, 18 km, no one else there until a man arrived to fish from the shore and a couple arrived to walk. The waves were at least 30 feet high, one after another, some of them curling into the most beautiful green tunnels, some of them full of sand. Flocks of pelicans whirling back and forth. And in the distance, first one whale, idling around, surfacing, breaching, then four more. We couldn’t swim on this beach, too wild, but to be there, the sand going on forever, the light so brilliant on the water, the grey-green plants, the sky was to be present in what felt like the beginning of the world.

the long beach

infinity, with a little crescent

palo de arco

1.

I was swimming early in the pool shaped like the symbol for infinity, with a little crescent at the shallow end. Swimming in sunlight, bougainvillea tumbling over one wall, the palo de arco flowers against the fence. Swimming, the only one in the blue water. Around the symbol for infinity, water shimmering on my skin. And oh, hummingbirds in the yellow throats of the flowers. Were they black-chinned or Costa’s or Xantu’s? By the time I was finished, they’d visited each flower.

sunset

2.

Last night, eating shrimps in diablo sauce on the beach, watching the sunset, I saw Venus. Scent of waves, cool wine, sun quietly falling below the horizon, water dark in the middle distance. In the afternoon, in that same middle distance, I saw a whale breach, too far out for me to know whether it was a humpback or a grey. While we ate shrimp and drank cool wine, there were whales out in the middle distance.

early pool

3. Black-chinned, Costa’s, Xantu’s in the palo de arco flowers, me in the blue water, in the deeper circle of infinity. How many laps? An infinite number? How many hummingbirds? One or nine? The ocean goes on forever.

second morning

little house

This morning, coffee on the terrace, wondering what it would like to live in the little house on the hill, I see birds in the palms, unfamiliar ones, but as colourful as the bougainvillea blooming everywhere, the thorny succulents with brilliant flowers. I see hooded orioles and blue grosbeaks, doves and sparrows, a Harris’s hawk (I think) gliding along the side of the hill. I was wondering who nests in the cardón cactii (little round holes in the trunks) all around us and just read that the holes are made by gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers who nest, then clean out the holes after; then elf owls and finches follow. Yesterday I had one successful ride to shore on my boogie board (after many attempts), just before sunset, and we came back to steak grilled over mesquite charcoal, Long walk on the sand, a morning swim in the pool just beside Peter and Sharon’s home, little geckos coming out at night, and pinch me, it’s January.

a new quotidian

morning

The first bird this morning, a gilded flicker in the palms by the little terrace where I will drink my coffee as soon as it’s made. It’s a world made new this morning. The light, the tumble of magenta and peach bougainvillea over the walls, the sound of the surf booming all night in my dreams. We stayed overnight in Vancouver on Tuesday in order to make our early flight to San Juan del Cabo and we rose in the dark. Mid-afternoon we were greeted by John’s cousin Peter and taken home, after picking up Sharon, to this paradise just south of Todos Santos. First things first. We went for a, well, not a swim, because the rollers were so wild and high, surfers riding the waves like a species not quite sea animal, not quite human. But we plunged in and the water was so wonderful. When it got dark, Orion appeared on his side right above us and when I woke in the night, briefly, and went out on the little balcony by my bedroom, the sky was pricked with a million stars. Today I want to walk the long sandy beach and swim and eat more of the shrimp we had last night after a (small) martini, the salad bright with cilantro. There’s a rooftop terrace where they’ve been watching whales.

at sunset

“everything scented by the flower beds, in eclipse beyond the lanterns” (Shirley Hazzard)

not orwell's roses

It was nearly 40 years ago that I first read Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, a book so completely absorbing that I remember I kept it in the kitchen during the day, to read between cooking and the dishes, and then took up to bed with me as early as I possibly could for the pleasure of its company before sleep. It opens with a storm, vividly described, and the power of both the storm and the language used to describe it, the power of the sentences themselves, propel the reader through its exacting architecture — of place, of ethics, of the ways in which human beings construct relationships and destroy them, and the overwhelming configurations of love. I read her later novel, The Great Fire, with perhaps less excitement, though it was so much more engrossing that most of the novels I read.

Maybe two months ago, I read that Brigitta Olubas had recently published a life of Shirley Hazzard and I sort of filed the information away, thinking that it was a book I’d love to read one day. And one day, just before Christmas, Bev Shaw who owns Talewind Books in Sechelt called me to say that there was a book waiting for me. Not one I ordered but a gift. When I went to pick it up, I was handed a heavy package wrapped in dark blue paper and Bev said, It’s a gift from Anik. (Anik See is my dear friend, living in the Netherlands, and between us we are fishgottaswimeditions.com.)

The package went under the Christmas boughs (we didn’t have a tree this year), under the twinkling little silvery-blue lights and felt birds, glass stars, and a single paper lantern from the dozen or so given to John’s family by his grandmother in the last century, and on Christmas Day I opened it, delighted to discover Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, by Brigitta Olubas. all 564 pages of it. I tell you the number of pages because I want you to imagine me propped up on 4 pillows, reading lamp positioned just so, and a heavy book resting on the covers. Really heavy. And yet I couldn’t wait to come up to bed each night for the week it took me to read this wonderful biography. It is a perfect marriage of a life and work, a detailed account of Shirley’s early years (traumatic and unsettling), her love of poetry and ability to memorize and recite a huge range of verse, her travels, her love affairs, and how she found her way to fiction. How she brought her wide and generous intelligence to life in general and to writing in particular. She was assigned to a clerical position with the UN for a time in Naples and it was here that she found a city, a population, an ambience that suited her.

When I entered that city I knew that it was a coup de foudre. I knew that this was where I wanted to be. Bit by bit I began to have this great companion, the city of Naples, and of course to learn all sorts of things there–to change my way of looking at things, to enlarge my way of looking at things.

She noticed everything, the remnants and fragments of the past in every street, “where the city ‘splits’ along its Greco-Roman axis’, to the Gesú Nuovo”, and the Italian she learned in Australia in order to read Giacomo Leopardi serves her well in the life she will now live largely in Naples and Capri, with a home in New York with her husband-in-the-future, Francis Steegmuller.

It’s been a strange 3 years, confined as we’ve mostly been to home–even a beloved place can feel confining after a bit–and quiet pursuits. So balancing this large and richly evocative book on my chest while rain fell on our metal roof and barred owls began their winter chorus was almost as good as travel. Almost. Because in part the kind of travel undertaken by Shirley Hazzard, especially after marriage to Steegmuller when their gold Rolls Royce would be shipped to Europe from New York to provide them with suitable transportation, wouldn’t be possible for most of us. But she brought it to life in her letters, her journals, her novels. For years she stayed with the Vivante family at the Villa Solaia, near Siena, and this passage gives us the time and place in its beautiful particulars.

Every evening of the summer, lanterns were hung from the oleanders and they had dinner in the garden. The table was a long and rickety affair on trestles, and there were always insects because of the lights, but on balance it was worth it. The evenings were cool even after the August days, which recorded heat, long after dark, in the villa’s outer walls…The scene, too, was worth the discomfort: the white table, three flasks of wine, pale dishes of bread, red dishes of meat, green bowls of salad; the summer dresses of the women, and crimson shawl hung on a chair; everything scented by the flower beds, in eclipse beyond the lanterns, and by lemon trees, which stood about in great stone urns. Above the line of hills facing across a valley, the sky glowed from the lights of Siena, but the house at night rode its hilltop in rolling, dark countryside with the purposeful isolation of a ship at sea, and people around the table, too, assumed something of the serene animation of voyagers.

redux: “…written to come out of the dark.”

Every time I remember the events described in this post from January 7 2015, I am surprised all over again by how threads came together to make an unexpected pattern.

________________

The second evening of my birthday magical mystery tour has just concluded. There was dinner at the Cafe Carthage followed by a play, more specifically a staged radio play: All That Fall, by Samuel Beckett. We drove over to Commercial Drive for dinner and of course we ordered cous cous, rich with merquez sausage, lamb shank, and chicken, brightened by harissa. John remembered the first time he ate cous cous. He’d taken a little train from Tunis to Carthage in the early 1970s with his girlfriend Dulce and after the train dropped them off, they discovered the site was closed that day. But the guard took them on a tour anyway and then invited them to his small home for dinner. He lived alone but a woman who cooked for him brought a dish of cous cous to his apartment. It was very good, remembered John, though it was mostly grain, with a few morsels of gristly meat. The flavour was in the vegetables and the spices. And then I remembered the first time I had cous cous. I was visiting an artist couple in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in the south of France. I’d met them on Crete and they’d taken me on sketching trips and we became friends. When they drove back to France, they invited me to come to stay and a few weeks later, I took the train from Rome to Menton where they were waiting at the station. I tagged along on their sketching trips and one day, learning that I’d never eaten cous cous, they decided we’d go to a little restaurant they knew in Antibes and have a cous cous feast. I didn’t eat meat in those years but there was a delicious fish version and we drank coarse red wine with it. This happened either the week that I turned 21 or 22. I can’t remember which, to be honest. But there was a galette des rois the day of my birthday and that evening I was taken to the casino in Monte Carlo (just next door!) to have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the occasion.

The play this evening was unexpectedly wonderful. I say that having imagined that it would be terse somehow and cryptic. Beckett, after all! But it was very moving and although there were indeed cryptic moments, there was an abiding sense of darkly funny disaster which I enjoyed so much, punctuated by passages of unbearably lovely lyricism. Beckett wrote All That Fall in 1956 and it was broadcast by the BBC in 1957 but he refused to allow stage performances of it during his life. He insisted it was meant to be heard. “It is a text written to come out of the dark,” he said. His estate has recently begun to permit stage productions but insists it must be presented as a radio play.

While I was visiting the artists in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, an elderly friend of theirs came from Paris to visit. He’d been ill and was quite frail but he was sweet. (And in the way these threads all connect, a woman I met a year later, in the west of Ireland — she had an astonishing past, was related in some way to Constance and Eva Gore-Booth, and she has a cameo role in my novella Inishbream — turned out to be this man’s cousin.) My friends took him for a drive one morning and I stayed back to do my laundry. I was alone in their house when the phone rang. This was before answering machines. My French was not good (still isn’t) and I answered nervously. There was a man on the other end and when he heard my tentative French, he switched to English. He was calling, he said, to find out how his friend Benny was. (The elderly man was Benny.) He was concerned because Benny had been so ill. I told him what I knew — that Benny was in good spirits, he was enjoying the long joyous meals, and was out at the moment on a drive with my hosts. He seemed pleased to hear this and asked me to tell Benny that Sam had called, from Paris, and to pass along his concern and regards.

When my friends returned, I gave them the message. Benny was delighted to hear that his friend had phoned. My host asked me if students in Canada studied Sam’s plays. You know, he said, Samuel Beckett? I assured him we did.

images

So tonight, replete with the best cous cous I’ve ever eaten, I listened to a text come out of the dark and it was both beautiful and funny and worth waiting for, on my birthday, 38 -39 years after my conversation with its author.

And as we were approaching our car, parked a few blocks from the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, a voice came out of the dark, asking about an address on that street. It was a young woman, pulling a huge wheeled suitcase, clutching a piece of paper. We told her we didn’t live in the area but it seemed that she was on the right street and it seemed that the actual address she was seeking was about five blocks away. She was confused and very French. Get in the car, John said, and we’ll find the house for you. He lifted her huge case into the trunk. She’d just flown to Vancouver from Paris, via London, and it seemed like the right thing to do to get her safely to her friend’s home. The street petered out and then continued again behind the Britannia Community Centre. But eventually we found the house. She told us that she was leaving again first thing in the morning to take the ferry and Greyhound to Sointula on Malcolm Island for a artist residency. She could have been my younger self or my daughter and in her journey I heard echoes of my own travels to an island off the coast of Ireland and a small village in the south of France. There’s a riddle at the heart of All That Fall but it’s no more or less mysterious than the riddles that shape our lives. Some days the answer is clear and sometimes it’s a voice in the night, asking if we know where 1430 is on the dark unknown street.

birthday moon and stars

star

When I woke at 6 a.m., my bedroom was bright with moonlight. The night had been stormy, rainy, but for about 20 minutes, the moon hovered in the big firs beyond my window, huge and silver. It’s the Wolf Moon or the Long Night Moon, as beautiful as any I’ve seen. I was awake, thinking about how everything comes around again and again in a life. Today is my birthday. I am 68 years old. I do my share of moaning about age and the decline of various parts of my body but honestly? It’s a privilege to have this long view of my life. To wake with someone I’ve loved for 44 years. To have the faces of my family appear on a screen to wish me happy birthday. To drive to the pool 8 minutes up the highway and to swim my slow kilometre to a playlist of what the lifeguard called golden oldies. Some early Beatles, Roy Orbison, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “Stand By Me”.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No, I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I’m not afraid. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m afraid of what is happening to the planet, afraid we’ve gone too far to realize what we need to do to allow it to heal–our cars; our thermostats in our houses; the logging trucks I passed in the dark as I drove to the pool, heading to the cutblocks near Egmont, and then heading down the Coast as I drove home, laden with what used to be forests, habitats. I’m afraid for the world we are leaving to a generation that doesn’t deserve our carelessness. But I’m not afraid any more of aging. Was I ever? As a young woman, I couldn’t have imagined not taking my strength and agility for granted. But 7 years ago I had a health crisis and one result was that I had difficulty walking easily for a few months. No one knew quite why. Instead of my regular long walks, I began to swim regularly and it feels like those months were a hinge between the woman I was and the one I am now. This week I swam 4 times, 4000 metres, thinking the whole time. I reach out my arms, kick my legs, and think. I am working out a few wrinkles in the writing I am currently doing and when I swim, particularly when I do the backstroke, I’m able to see the text almost as a window. As long as I am in my favourite lane, I don’t have to worry about direction (my body knows!), and I can use my inner eye to figure out the relationships between my intention and the sentences required to carry it. One arm flings itself back and I see what needs to be done next. Some days I can hardly wait to get home to see if what I thought about while swimming will work on the actual page. The other day it did. Today I’m not so sure. I’ve come to the point in this writing where I need to figure out a way to introduce another strand of narrative.

This morning I came home and opened my birthday presents. I was sitting in a chair by the big window in our living room when I saw the star hanging in another window. This is the day when I usually take down the Christmas boughs and ribbons, the stars hung from lamps and bookshelves and the pot rack in the kitchen. We used to take down the strings of little lights around the windows but now we leave them because there’s nothing nicer than lights in winter, inside and out. But why not stars too? Or at least the ones June gives us every year for Christmas.

Swimming and listening to golden oldies with the memory of the moon still bright in my mind, the faces of my grandchildren eager on the screen as they sang Happy Birthday, the bottle of Chablis to remind me of the scent of rain over dry stones, stars hanging in the windows, on the day of Epiphany, 68 years on this earth, I am full of a version of hope, a more modest hope than I would have dreamed of even a decade ago, but it’s something. Maybe it’s everything.

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me