“A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as ‘a love song’.”


My family left yesterday morning, in a rush of activity, one group heading to Earls Cove to cross Jervis Inlet and the other south, to Langdale, to cross Howe Sound. (Angelica flew home on Wednesday, across Georgia Strait.) On our way back from Langdale yesterday, John and I stopped for a swim at the little pebble cove we swam at on Wednesday. It was lovely but melancholy to sit on the logs after the swim, drying in the sun, everything quiet. Families fill such space with their needs, their complications, their various personalities, the sheer energy of their lives. I’m sure there is an equation for what happens when 11 people gather, who were once 5, and who have lived away from the home they shared (1 of them) for longer than they were in residence there, who left and returned more times than a single person could count. What is the mathematics of love in this situation?

I have been a mother for more years than I wasn’t. I didn’t expect to be. I wasn’t much interested in dolls when I was a child and didn’t create elaborate family structures in any kind of play. Yet now I see the possibilities of those structures everywhere. It’s after 1 a.m. where I am now. I’ve come down to my desk to do some work and my study window is wide open to the night. There are coyotes vocalizing in the woods as I write this. They’re farther away then they were the first night all of my children and their partners and their own children were here, when the song was one harmonic tangle. I’m listening tonight and wondering. Did one parent just bring back meat? Has one youngster strayed? Those quick sharp yips—am I right in hearing anxiety? Urgency? The harmony is missing. They’ve lost the song, at least temporarily. Maybe the parents are too busy for simple music.

And now? Silence.

I came down tonight to do some work on a collection of essays I’ve recently finished. Or almost finished. I have one more to write, after I visit Ivankivtsi, my grandfather’s village, in September. But for the most part, Blue Portugal is complete. It rambles, it investigates blue, retinal damage, aging, textile work, ventures into ampelography, into family history, it attempts to learn the dance movements of Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor, BWV 1004, it listens to Janáček:

                                              Listening to the young pianist playing “The Madonna of Frydek”, I am in the fields of barley, soft grasses, poppies. A blown-away leaf, the composer said, could be heard as “a love song”. The children are running ahead, a bag of apples slung over the back of the oldest.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of writer I would have been if I’d never met my husband, been a mother, never lived the life I do? Would I have pursued a PhD in classical literature, would I have learned to play a cello, would I have settled in a little house at Ballynakill, the one a man I loved was thinking of buying? Would I have been more systematic in my thinking? If my desk is a reflection of the state of my mind, then woe is me: there are worry dolls, a tray of shells and fossils, a line of books ranging from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey at one end to Exploring Victoria’s Architecture by Segger and Franklin at the other, bracketing poetry, natural history, a Greek grammar, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, a few Loeb editions, and Margaret Ormsby’s British Columbia: A History. The other day my older grandson asked me about the bones on my desk and I told him they were the pelvic bones of our middle dog, Lily. (I wrote about her pelvis years ago and then again in an essay in Blue Portugal. So I’m not actually finished with any of this material yet. That’s why I keep it to hand.)

I wonder if the coyotes have gone to sleep? I can hear something else. It might be the weasel who has her nest under the compost and who I’ve seen several times now, looking up at me from one corner of it. And a tree frog is creaking out in the grapes. The other night, as we finished our last meal together on the deck, I felt something on my bare leg. Was it Eddy’s hand? He is one and was crawling under the table. But no. It was a frog, making its way from the table pedestal to the jade tree under the eaves. The other children crowded under the table to look at the small beautiful creature clinging to my leg. Later, in bed, I had to wonder if that had actually happened, the whole dinner, the frog, the gathering of children under the French tablecloth.

                                             Listening to the young pianist playing Janáček’s “In the Mists”, I close my eyes and imagine the landscape where you were born. Foothills of the Beskids, near Janáček’s home village. He was a folklorist as well as a musician and gathered the songs and spoken tales of Moravia-Silesia. Did you sing? Did your family have its own musicians? Did you listen to the bells on the sheep and imagine them into simple tunes? Listening, I am in Moravia, I am in a village of white buildings painted with ultramarine flowers by Anežka Kašpárková, I am myself a babička, stitching blue cloth in long red stitches, my four grandchildren running in the tall grass.

essays in blue

an essay in blue

In the past year, I’ve written most of a collection of essays. This surprises me—and doesn’t. I knew I had threads I wanted to pursue, into a labyrinth of blue pigment, textiles, family history (again! or still?), and some other unknown and perhaps decorative elements. I had a title, Blue Portugal, and I knew that the title would help to determine something of the process of identifying likely threads.

And why the essay specifically for this work? Although I’ve written poetry in the far past and a version of fiction in the not-so-far past (and present), the essay form(s) somehow welcome(s) my own strange metabolic writing style and interests. You will find writers who will argue quite fiercely for what an essay is or isn’t. I’m more interested in what it can be. That its borders are notional. That it welcomes ideas, materials, figurative language, metrical incursions, and really almost anything that a writer cares to bring to it. I don’t mean that it is undisciplined as a form but that its disciplines are not (as they say) written in stone, though an essay would be very interested in learning about about glyphs and maybe the influence of the beautiful carved letters on Trajan’s column.

Last week I wrote an essay, over two mornings, called “Anatomy of a Button”. This one came out of the blue, literally, as I sewed buttons on an indigo quilt. And when I edited it several times and placed it in the draft manuscript of Blue Portugal, I saw that there are now 8 essays. I know I have one more (at least) to write but that one has to wait until after the middle of September when I’ll return from a trip to Ukraine to learn something about the country, and more specifically the village, my grandfather left in 1907. John and I had planned to go to Ukraine last September but an unexpected health issue arose instead. I’ve had a little literary windfall which means we can try again this fall. I’m in the process of organizing it now.

The 8 essays I’ve written are all different. They use language and even the white space of the page differently. Some of them sing. One of them uses a particular piece of music (Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D Minor) to investigate grief, the speaker of the essay taking on each of the dance moments of the Partita, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, to move through space and time, noticing as she dances the strings of a violin bow, the bodies of those in the Cancer Institute as she waits for her own procedure, and the number of breaths a person takes in a life if you stop to do the math. Sometimes in these essays I stop to do the math (as I did in “Euclid’s Orchard”). Sometimes I tie cloth with hemp string and dip it repeatedly in indigo dye. Sometimes I visit rivers with my husband. I wonder about taking psychotropic drugs in order to recover the beauty of entoptic phenomenon experienced when my retinas were trying to detach in Edmonton in winter.

I think nothing gives me more pleasure than realizing that I have an essay to write. My pulse speeds up. Nothing else matters. I feel dazzled by and with language, pulled along in its flow and currents. This winter has been like that. So many nights I’ve come downstairs to work at my desk while the night breaths around me, essays in blue while owls called, coyotes mated, weasels raced through the eavestroughs. Having written these 8 essays, I kind of wonder what’s next. Imagine a single thread, dazzling in its colours and texture. Take it in your hand and wonder about it. Is it strong, is it tied securely to something as yet unknown, unseen? I don’t like confined space and if the thread leads down under the earth, I probably won’t follow. Not yet. But sometimes I dream of darkness, the comfort of it, and the fear. I’ll keep tugging, just a little, and maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take the first step down.

a Sunday ciaconna


I’ve spent the morning thus far working on an essay for an anthology about the locations of grief. The essay has given me a lot of trouble, or I’ve given it the trouble, for who can say which came first? If you think of the form as capacious, if you believe (as I do) that an essay can explore anything and can adapt its language, its rhythms, its torque (if you like), to allow any subject as its current beloved, perhaps then the difficulty must be mine, not the essay’s. In any case, I’ve felt my linguistic agility to be challenged as I try to shape my own subject to the forms and gorgeous music of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004.

Why this music? It’s what I listened to after my mother’s death and I listen to it still, finding in it such expression of everything I’ve ever wanted to say about living and dying. I’ve tried to use the movements—based on dances—to carry my thinking, my enactments of memory and sorrow. I’m not there yet. I printed a draft this morning and see where the clunky moments are. I also see where I’ve done something close to what I hoped to.

Right now I’m listening to Itzhak Perlman play the partita. It’s glorious. I have several recordings—the very young Hilary Hahn, Lara St. John, Arnold Steinhardt (two versions)—and don’t have a favourite (though maybe right this minute? Perlman). Each violinist brings something different to the performance and Steinhardt wrote in Violin Dreams of the texture and sound he understood each of his violins also contributed to his own interpretations, in youth, and later in his life. I’ve also been reading about the Baroque bow and its outward bend and how it suited the dance movements of Bach’s compositions.

What I’ve loved about this work is that it’s encompassing, it’s richly absorbing, and I’m learning how receptive an essay can be to the interests of its maker.

“Work was something that thrived on fire”

Smoke again, from the Interior fires. The sun that eerie pink-gold when you can see it at all. And the world dry, dry. I was at my desk, finishing the first draft of a long essay on grief and music. I told John the reason why I am playing Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin over and over again is because I need to understand the rhythm of the movements; they correspond with dances of the time. Well, they do, and they don’t. But I listen — Hilary Hahn, who recorded the partitas at the age of 17; Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded the particular partita I’m obsessed with these days twice, as a young man and as an older man, and I can’t say which I prefer (there is such depth and colour in both recordings); Lara St. John; Joshua Bell….In my essay, I am trying to replicate something of that stately music. Only the dancers are old and dying; they’re people for whom this music would have been as foreign as poetry; but they’re mine and somehow I believe they can dance an allemande or a gigue with the best of them.

It’s my youngest grandchild’s birthday in two days and somehow the music reminds me of how rich my life is with him and his sister and his cousin in the world. We won’t be there to help him celebrate but I expect he will like the box I sent to him, filled with little gifts; he will no doubt like the paper and ribbons best. Though in time he will come to the books, the other things. And he will crawl and walk (unsteadily, maybe just a step at a time) in the grass, his beautiful face as expressive as any I’ve ever loved. Sometimes he dances. And he’s in the essay too.

beautiful henry

I’ve been thinking of poetry, of poems about families, and the one that comes to mind is Philip Levine’s gorgeous “Smoke”. Here’s a passage…

Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.

He alludes in the poem to “the mythology of the family” and in an interview in The Atlantic in 1999, he explained what he meant: “When I speak of “the mythology” in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone.” Which is exactly what I’m writing about in this essay on music and sorrow—in the smoke, in the heart-breaking Chaconne of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the dance of the one(s) left behind, as the sun retreats from us, and we move into autumn.

Continue reading ““Work was something that thrived on fire””


I’ve wanted to write about the winter wren I see almost every morning when I first come to my study. My desk looks out to a small covered porch where a birdhouse hangs, a gift from Brendan a few Christmases ago. No bird has nested in it though every spring a few chickadees examine it and find it wanting in some way. On these cold mornings, the winter wren darts in and out, no doubt in search of insects or spiders. The wren also comes right to the window and hops along the frame. If it sees me, it doesn’t seem to mind. I know that the wrens have been reclassified, that what was formerly known as the winter wren has now been split into an eastern species (winter wren) and a western species (Pacific wren). But I will always think of this small bird as a winter wren. And their song is part of our winter soundscape in these coastal forests, a long complex song full of sequences of notes that repeat fairly regularly. A few winters ago, I was writing a novella I’d titled Winter Wren and was listening to bird song recordings, some of which were slowed down so one could hear these sequences.  And I was listening to Bach too. There are several bars in the fourth movement of  the Partita in A minor for solo flute which have almost exactly the same run of 16th notes that I hear in the song of the winter wren. I’m listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal play this Partita right now and it’s full of winter — the chilly clear air, the rich polyphony of water and birds. I don’t know much about music but moments like this are openings, windows into worlds just beyond our usual understanding.

Here’s a little bit of the novella in which the main character hears the winter wren for the first time:

“She was on the porch, wringing the mop over the edge when her favourite movement of the Bach partita in A minor, the last, the Bourée Anglaise, began. Leaning on the railing, she loved how the passage floated out in the wintery air, a counterpoint to waves and wind. She hummed a little of it from memory. She’d heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play this in Paris, the amazing backward rhythm of the bourée balancing the rapid run of 16th notes, and ever after thought of it as music she would choose before all else.

It wasn’t until the movement was almost complete that she realized she was hearing another sound, another melody answering the bourée, ascending as the flute descended. Startled, she looked around, fearful. Was it someone whistling on her property? No, it was a bird. It must be a bird because there wasn’t anyone or anything else in sight. And it came from within the salal on the trail down to the waterfall. Peering into the undergrowth, she came face to face with a tiny dark bird, very pert, bobbing and bending on the stem it had claimed. From its open beak came a long undulating series of notes as melodic as anything Bach had put to paper.”

Home, listening to Bach

We arrived home late yesterday afternoon from the Ottawa wedding and attendant celebrations. It was wonderful to gather our family together – Brendan and Cristen coming from Edmonton, Angelica from Victoria – to help Forrest and Manon get married on a bright Saturday, to feast with them and their friends and Manon’s family on Moroccan food (from Chez Fatima in Hull: extraordinary, every bite), to dance the night away, and then some. A sweet memory: watching Manon and her father begin the first dance, “The Tennessee Waltz”, and then to have my son reach for me to join him, and them, on the little dance floor. Such a lovely song, though I need to give some thought to how I would alter the lyrics, which don’t apply in this instance:

I remember the night,
And the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darlin’
The night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz.

No loss in this marriage but the gift of a glorious daughter-in-law, a wide-reaching extended family to enrich our own, and again that feeling that life doesn’t pass but accumulates, person by person, moment by moment.

And now I’m home, listening to Casals play the cello suites, perfectly suited to this autumn morning, the big-leaf maples glowing golden in the woods beyond the house, a few roses still, last night’s big moon still in the sky.

A few images of the wedding:

The road not taken, the song not sung

Readers of my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, know that I love music, though I know almost nothing about it. I began singing lessons when I turned fifty as a way to try to find my way into the heart of song, particular songs; and I did learn a lot. I hope to resume my lessons this fall and have scores of pieces I’d like to try. I feel like such a novice but I also know that almost nothing makes me feel the way I do when I am singing and am somehow staying on pitch and understanding how a phrase can contain such potential for texture and beauty.

A few years ago I read Alex Ross’s wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. It provided such an interesting historical reading of that century by looking at its music. I reviewed it for our local monthly magazine, The Harbour Spiel, and this is what I said:

“On a recent trip to Europe, I bought a copy of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, 2007) to read on trains and in hotels. Alex Ross is the music critic for the New Yorker and I’ve enjoyed his writing over the years. His book had been on my radar for some time but finding it in a shop in Aix-en-Provence seemed serendipitous.

            Sometimes a book serves to shake up the way you see the world and for me, The Rest is Noise is one of those. Over the course of nearly 600 pages, Ross provides a coherent and vital reading of 20th century cultural and political history. Ostensibly about music – and he is such a fine and knowledgeable guide! – the book  takes the reader through a broad landscape shaped and reshaped by war and uneasy peace.

            Taking as his starting point the opening of Richard Strauss’s controversial opera Salome in the Austrian city of Graz in May, 1906, Ross looks at that moment – “an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle” – as a hinge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Present in the audience were representatives of several traditions: Johann Strauss 11’s widow represented old Vienna; Puccini was there to hear his German rival’s “terribly cacophonous thing”; and the bold younger composers – Schoenberg, Mahler, and Alban Berg — were there to witness the shock of the new. Also in the audience, possibly, was a 17 year old Adolf Hitler.

The book concludes with a look at the making of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, both a distillation of key modernist influences as well as something completely original.

Alex Ross is brilliant at pulling together the various strands of musical tradition that formed new patterns, new sounds over the course of a century. The role that politics played in both encouraging and suppressing composers is explored in fascinating detail. His clear understanding of the technical and creative accomplishments of everyone from Stravinsky to Shostakovich to John Cage to Steve Reich makes this a wonderful book for anyone with even a passing interest in music.”

Last week I bought Ross’s latest book, Listen to This. It’s a joyous journey through music, stopping from time to time to examine, lavish praise, offer explications that are often extraordinary in their depth and originality. It is a congenial book. I love how his mind works, his listening ear (and heart), tracing the chacona through its incarnation as lament, as melancholic melody  — he pauses to consider “Flow My Tears”, one of the first songs I learned to sing (badly) – right into the realm of talking, walking blues.  His portrait of Esa-Pekka Salonen is so intimate and revelatory that I wish could go out now and watch him conduct Stravinsky.

The book makes me want to play my favourite cds again: Ian Bostridge singing Schubert’s Winterreise;  Glenn Gould’s transcendent recordings of the Goldberg Variations, both the 1955 version, impossibly deft and swift, and the more introspective 1981 recording – I can’t make up my mind which I prefer, which is perhaps the way it should be; Maria Callas singing Tosca; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing…anything on earth;  Messiaen’s heartbreaking Quartet for the End of Time which I heard in March at St. George’s Bloomsbury (designed by the enigmatic Nicholas Hawksmoor and possibly the most beautiful church I’ve ever been in) played by the young Akoka Quartet; Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (and Ross even quotes the line I often think to myself: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”); and about a hundred others.

And the book makes me wonder about roads not taken. I do know some things. Native plants, literature, how to bake pretty good sourdough bread. But what would have happened if I’d studied music as a girl, as a young woman, if I’d taken voice lessons in my teens, if I’d become a singer rather than a writer? Is this what happens as one leans more towards sixty than fifty? That the past becomes a series of lost opportunities or at least has that gloss when the sun is setting, the moon not yet risen, the music in the background so sweet that it makes you wonder why you can’t make that high C or run a bow across the strings of a violin.