sleeping house, the last morning

For a week, our house has been full. Three children, their partners, a baby. Some mornings I woke, excited, and wondered why, having forgotten in my sleep that they were all here. And then joy, a universe restored, even temporarily, to its old form. Well, new-old, because who would have imagined the small children who grew up here would become such capable purposeful adults? Not me, not when I remember the diapers, the kitchen floor strewn with toys, the clamour for favourite meals, a swim, the old stories at bedtime. But wait — some things haven’t changed!

I finished a long essay this spring, one I’ve had in mind for some time, and I know I’ve written of it here. It’s called “Euclid’s Orchard” and it’s about math, love, horticulture, quilting, coyotes, and the patterns that unite all of these. Here’s the last section, an offering as I listen to Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly getting ready to leave in less than an hour:

I tried hard to understand the Joy of Mathematics and realized that I couldn’t, except in the broadest possible way. That at the heart of it is an attempt to relate concepts that might not readily suggest themselves to be connected. Number theory and harmonic analysis, for example. And I can only think of those by relating them to the figurative language I learned as a student of literature. Language departing from its logical usage to urge the reader to emotional and intellectual discovery. On that mid-summer night, listening to coyotes sing madrigals in our abandoned orchard, I should have remembered Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth,
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V. i. 12-17)

They were our names, our bodies under the heavens, all of us singing together in different voices to tell the story of our orchard, our time here in this place we have inhabited since – for John and me – 1981, and the only way to shape the story is through connotation, not ordinary discourse, though I praise the literal, the specific, but by reaching up into the starlight to parse what lies behind it. A mathematician might see the strong-weak duality this way:
weak duality
I’ve tried to puzzle through equations: the arrows, the lines and diacritics, the glyphs, the beautiful characters that look like Greek to me. Oh, wait, they are Greek, though not used to shape the yearnings of Sappho or the grand battles of the Iliad, but something else: a notation, a way of assigning symbolic value to constants, function, variables. A way of talking about equalities between variables. It’s the chicken and egg argument written in the ancient markings of Simonides in wax. Would math work in Chinese characters or the syllabics of the far north? Would flowers still smell sweet if their seed patterns were random? Was a baby ever born without the blue eyes or sturdy legs of a potato-farming ancestor near the Carpathian mountains? Would it matter?

Inside I am stitching a spiral into the layers of the orchard I have pieced together, a snail shell curled into itself. That’s what I’ll see when I’ve finished. I begin the spiral at its very heart, keeping my course as even as I can as it opens out and widens. Not the complicated pathways of the sunflower, some turning left, some right, so that an optimal number of seeds are packed in uniformly, or Romanesco broccoli, its arcs within radi resulting in something so intricately beautiful I wonder how anyone could cut into it to eat it. On windowsills, pinecones. The plump Ponderosas, brought home from the Nicola Valley, and a few long monticolas. They’re dry, open, but at the base, where their stalk connected them to their trees, two spirals are still visible, like a relaxed embrace, lovers asleep. My spirals are simple, my hands sewing to follow a path from its knotted source, around and around, until I’ve learned that my pleasure comes from the journey itself, a needle leading me outward, towards completion. A quilt elegant and sturdy, a sequence emptied of its numbers.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father, the rather more shrill voice of the mother – anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard – and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.


A day to think of mothers — mine, John’s, both dead — and to celebrate one’s own maternity. And I do. My children have been one of the greatest joys of my life. Sometimes I walk around and see this house and its garden as it was when my children were small. They were pretty much free-range. They had 8 acres of our woods and clearings to explore and then continued from there to the lakes, the mountain behind us, and now to Ottawa, Edmonton, and Victoria. Today I thought of them as I encountered snakes in the sunny grass, two tree frogs, and watched violet-green swallows swoop over the garden. These are constants, waited for every spring, and noted with such pleasure. (I know snakes don’t necessarily sound lovely but they are so useful and if you look at them carefully, you can see the beauty in their markings and the elegance in their movement.)

John’s mother brought a tiny crabapple, a seedling or sucker from her own tree, and now it is perhaps 25 feet high, and wide, welcoming — it’s humming with bees today and in the fall, a bear will come for its fruit.

P1100097A clump of sweet-scented white violet which has grown here since 1987 when Vi (short for Violet) Tyner left a bit of it on the seat of my car while I was shopping, its growing conditions noted in her spidery handwriting.

P1100100And remember Oberon, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, asking Puck to bring him ““…a little western flower / Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness.” (Act II, Scene 1.) That was the tri-coloured viola or heartsease and I love seeing it growing wild among the new grass:

P1100101In herbal lore, it is associated with happy memories summoned to ease the heartbreak of separation. No heartbreak here but a kind of thoughtfulness. Where have the years gone? Why did I keep hearing children at play in the woods while I planted savoy cabbages and weeded the salad patch?