“A kind of opposite is also true.”

constellations

Last night I stayed awake for longer than usual, wanting to finish the book I was reading: The Smallest Lights in the Universe, by Sara Seager. Sara is an astrophysicist at MIT and the book is a memoir of her professional life, her passion for exoplanets and the possibility (she would say probability, I think) of life forms in the vast universe. It’s also a memoir of her unexpected widowhood and how she moved ahead in her life and career with two small boys to care for. I found it an entrancing read and after I closed it last night, I thought for a long time about stars and motherhood and grief.

Two nights ago, I was returning to bed after visiting the bathroom and I paused to look out the window at the dark sky. (Although we have curtains, we seldom draw them shut at night.) Two nights ago there were so many stars that I stood for a time just taking in the silvery shimmer across the vault of sky over the Douglas firs just beyond my house, the beauty settling in my whole body like a promise. This is here, I thought, despite everything else. Despite the vaccination delays, the lists of those who have died, the willful denial of science by too many, the families in trouble, those who are lonely and isolated. Despite the horror it’s easy to succumb to when the new numbers are released each afternoon. This is here, this matters, this keeps me standing in the darkness looking out, I thought. I’d just begun The Smallest Lights in the Universe that evening so maybe I was particularly vulnerable to the beauty but I hope I’m never immune to it. In late November, 2018, I fell on ice and without knowing right away, I injured my retinas. In the days immediately following my accident, I had the sensation of seeing stars cascade past my face, a sensation as thrilling as it was frightening. Or to be honest, I wasn’t frightened until later, when I had emergency surgery to repair my eyes, and learned how serious the situation could have been if I hadn’t gone to the hospital when I did.

On a snowy evening in Edmonton, I sat in a chair high above the city glittering below, and saw images so beautiful that I know why people have sought them since they first ate datura or drank fermented honey and ingested mushrooms so toxic they could not have lived long afterwards. In dark caves they applied ochre, charcoal, and ground calcite to show light falling from the faces of horses and spiral patterns that led them to a dizzy apprehension of time and starlight. Following the spiral, they went to the heart of the mystery. It was never ours. It was always ours.

When I sew my spirals, I am finding my way into darkness, hopeful that I will find my way back. I am walking a path worn to the bare earth. It’s one way I know to hear myself think. I sew small shell buttons to the ends of each trail, a place-marker, shining as the light shone by my face in an Edmonton room where I lay in intense pain, but also in joy as I heard my grandchildren singing. Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, the other named Paul.
from “The Blue Etymologies”, in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, forthcoming.

It might sound dramatic to say I was changed by the experience but I was. I learned how precious my eyesight is—and isn’t it strange that it takes injury sometimes to allow us to understand what a gift it is to see?

There’s a very moving moment in Sara’s book when she is in New Mexico with her sons, trying out a new camera prototype, capable (she hopes) of finding the information she anticipates will further her work with exoplanets. It’s a moonless night on a desert with the Milky Way overhead.

We wanted to stay out there with the stars until the sun began its rise, washing them out one by one until even the brightest had disappeared.

We would know they were still up here. People about the sun and its reliability, how even on the darkest days we know it will come out again. A kind of opposite is also true. Even on the brightest days, beyond blue skies, there are countless stars shining over our heads.

I think of the shimmering stars within my eyes themselves, shining, shining, I remember looking at stars with my children decades ago, but in the place I still live, our attempts to find and name the constellations, I think of how much has been lost but how much still remains, lit by starlight when I least expected it.

“Let me then…”

rivers

“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” (from ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Virginia Woolf)

Yesterday, using the new printer that arrived on Friday (old one, perfectly serviceable, would no longer talk to the aging computer it was linked to and of course there are no longer drivers available, etc.), I printed the first full draft of Blue Portugal & Other Essays, a collection I’ve been working on for the past two years. In fact, it’s not quite finished. There’s a place holder, a title, for the final essay: “Museum of the Multitude Village”. This last essay I hope to write after a trip to my grandfather’s village in Bukovina in September. In trying to locate more Kishkans in that area, I discovered a museum in a neighbouring village, founded by one Vasily Kishkan, described as a writer and teacher.

museum

This collection surprises me and it doesn’t. I wanted to pursue some threads and I did that. I also found myself revisiting landscapes with new information, trying to make sense of what I already knew, or thought I knew. If I was trying to write a book to fit the current market, I’d be very disappointed now because this isn’t that kind of book. I have my touchstones for what I do and thank goodness they are always close at hand. Last night I was re-reading Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs, a book in which the author explores Woolf’s life through her writing, including diaries, letters, and unpublished work. She invites the reader to follow Woolf as she writes, edits, faces both uncertainty and the true possibilities of her work. Last night I was particularly interested in the chapter on the writing of Roger Fry’s biography, a book she began with hope and excitement and concluded with something like despair as the machinery of war sounded everywhere around her (the book was published in 1940). As solace, she wrote some autobiographical sketches, including “A Sketch of the Past”, the most beautiful essay about her childhood at Talland House in St. Ives. I remember walking to the road above Talland House on a trip to England in 2005, entranced by its views and garden. Could I hear voices from where I stood on the road? Coming from the trees? Maybe.

Yesterday, with my newly printed manuscript in hand, I sat outside with my red pen. I’ve already edited most of the essays but one I finished recently, “Mapping, an Unknown Place”, was still pretty rough. I didn’t realize how rough until I had the actual pages in hand. I’m still that old 20th century writer, the one who needs to see the pages following one another in actual time and space, not on a screen. So I scribbled and made notes to myself and spent time at my computer entering the changes.

pages

And realized this morning that I was writing to my father. The essay tries to find him (again) in the place where he was a child. I’ve gone there before but this time I had more information, as though that would allow me to be closer to him. Did it? I don’t know. But it made me feel remorse for how our relationship left too much unsaid. On this day, of all days, I want to give myself a second chance with him and one of the opportunities that writing gives us is just that. Let me then, Virginia Woolf said, descend again into that stream. And oh, yes, that’s what I hope for.

The map I have been trying to draw eludes me. I look and look again. Was it here the washtubs were stored, in full view of the singular hill, was that the river beyond the cottonwoods, the road with its little haze of dust? Yearning is a cloudy overlay. As much as I want to see the thing clear and definite, the land, the house, the road leading to town, and away to the places my father walked, looking for bones, I am lost in the contours of paper and dirt. My thumb rasps old paper. Wandering down the gravel road alongside the barren ground with its tufts of tough grass, broken bottles at the edge, a few brave grasshoppers clicking, I keep my face averted from the truck with the Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Workers Program sign painted across its side. I will it away. Away. On the map I can’t draw or annotate but keep clear in my imagination, I can find the exact location where my Canadian family (all foreign workers, domestic, miners, subsistence farmers) began. The cone-shaped hill holds more than its layers of mudstone, sandstone, shales, and seams of dark coal. Within the hill, the fossilized bodies of dinosaurs large and small, later mammals, reptiles, fish, trees as unlikely as giant redwoods and mulberries in that dry land. On its steep slope, my father lingers. My finger traces the road, the place where Michichi Creek enters the Red Deer River, its elbows of ice and the pike and walleye resting in the shadows. I smell the mineral scent of the waters, far off rain in the clouds. My father is riding towards me, hell-bent for town. He is 3 years old. He is 13. He a man bent by the news that his brother died. I open my arms to him, full of questions, full of love.